It Takes More Than You Think
Recently, the shortage in the fiber optic workforce has gained national attention because the billions of dollars of federal spending for infrastructure and broadband will create an even worse shortage of competent fiber optic techs.
“Kentucky state officials hired contractors who then needed local workers. The FOA was asked if we could help because we already had a trainer offering classes in Kentucky. They asked how many FOA certified fiber optic techs lived in Kentucky. We searched our database and told them two. That’s right two. That wasn’t going to help very much.”
As the state broadband agencies try to understand how to take part in these federal funding programs, they are learning how big a problem the shortage of fiber optic techs really is. Late last year, the FOA was contacted by a state agency which was starting a fiber optic middle mile project asking if the FOA could help get more contractors to bid on this large project. We contacted some contractors and were told that they were completely booked up and did not have workers to bid on any new jobs.
Training – The Right Way
The FOA is now working with state workforce development agencies to help them create programs that can train enough techs to meet their demand. We begin by telling them this story about Kentucky Wired to show how it can work.
Kentucky decided to build their own statewide fiber optic network, Kentucky Wired, to connect all 95 counties, many of which had no modern telecom infrastructure because no telecom company was interested. You know all the arguments about building infrastructure in rural and low-income areas, right?
Kentucky state officials hired contractors who then needed local workers. The FOA was asked if we could help because we already had a trainer offering classes in Kentucky. They asked how many FOA certified fiber optic techs lived in Kentucky. We searched our database and told them two. That’s right two. That wasn’t going to help very much.
But the FOA had a useful contact. One of the schools that was part of the Kentucky Community and Technical Colleges System (KCTCS) was FOA approved for years and the instructor, Tom Collins, was a FOA Director. We brought him into the conversation.
Everyone agreed that it was necessary for Kentucky to set up a program to develop their own workforce, but it was necessary to ensure all parties were on the same wavelength. With everyone’s cooperation, FOA flew to Kentucky to run a meeting of all the parties involved, including the state agency overseeing the project, the contractors tasked with building the network, and representatives from all the KCTCS locations. (See Figure 1.)
The agenda for the meeting was simple—tell everyone about your needs. The state agency reviewed the plans for Kentucky Wired and the contractors made presentations about their needs for the workforce. The contractors all talked about what kinds of workers they wanted: workers who showed up every day, were not afraid of work, would take direction, wanted to learn a skilled trade, etc. Interestingly, competency as fiber techs was not on top of their list because they understood that these workers would learn by OJT (on-the-job-training), and workers who had completed a basic fiber course for FOA certification would be well prepared.
KCTCS officials talked about their state-wide network of schools and how the FOA program had been very successful at one location already. The FOA followed to explain our role in helping schools get started, providing curriculum, assistance in setting up facilities including hands-on labs, tutoring instructors, and providing certifications to their students. And we answered a lot of questions.
Everyone agreed on creating a network of schools and making funding available to start the programs as soon as possible.
Kentucky Wired finished connecting all 95 counties with fiber in late 2022. During that time, nine schools in the KCTCS system (located around the state) trained and certified 1,200 CFOT®s (FOA Certified Fiber Optic technicians). These techs worked for the contractors, continued learning by OJT, and helped make Kentucky Wired a reality. Many of these CFOTs were retrained from other low-income jobs, including laid-off coal miners—the ideal outcome of a workforce development program.
Now that all 95 Kentucky counties are connected to the backbone, it’s the responsibility of the local counties to build-out connectivity to their citizens and businesses. Thanks to the cooperation between the state agencies, KCTCS, and the contractors, there is now an experienced local workforce around the state trained and certified in fiber optics ready and able to build out the local networks.
That’s what workforce development is all about, isn’t it—training and/or retraining workers for available well-paying jobs?
The lesson here is that success depends on cooperation. No state broadband or workforce agency, no school or training organization, no contractor, nor any other organization can make it happen alone. They must work together and build on each of their strengths to make their programs a success.
We recently told this story to the workforce group the FOA is helping in the state of Maine. They had hired outside consultants, Camoin Associates, to create the Maine Broadband Workforce Strategy report (www.maineconnectivity.org/workforce). It’s important to note the scale of need along with the job titles that are missing from Maine’s workforce. The page of quotes from employers they interviewed is noteworthy as well. Read the sidebar, “The Maine Thing”, for insights other states and broadband providers should focus on during this historic time—fiber investment is right around the corner.