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Let’s Not Allow the Workforce Gap to Jeopardize a Historic Opportunity

April 23, 2024
Filling gaps in the workforce as BEAD rolls out.

Thoughts on a unique year for broadband.

What do the American Interstate Highway System, Golden Gate Bridge, Hoover Dam, and Empire State Building all have in common? They are among the most important construction projects in our nation’s history, all of which helped shape us into the world economic power we are today. As we turn to 2024, the telecommunications industry is preparing to embark on one of the largest, most important construction initiatives in not just our industry’s but more importantly our country’s history—yet there is a major hitch that threatens it: will we have the adequate workforce to deliver it?

This year, states across the country will ramp up major construction projects to deliver high speed digital services to unserved and underserved communities in rural areas spanning all corners of the U.S. If successful, this initiative could have far-reaching effects on cities and towns across our nation, with critical impacts ranging from improved economic development to increased educational opportunities to dramatically increased quality of life, just to mention a few.

The Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) program is a federal grant program administered by the National Telecommunications and Information Association (NTIA) and its mission is to close the digital divide with over $42 billion in funding from the Infrastructure Investment Jobs Act (IIJA), also known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. BEAD is designed to provide every state with the funding and resources they need to finally bring high speed internet to all Americans, regardless of where they live.

Critical Factor to Success: Closing the Worker Shortage Gap

If the BEAD program is going to be successful in its mission, it will require a capable workforce to build and deploy these next-generation communications networks. Estimates vary on how many workers will be needed. For example, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) forecasts there will be nearly 34,000 jobs1 needed this year to adequately support the U.S. government’s broadband deployment programs, while the Fiber Broadband Association (FBA) estimates that there will be more than 200,000 jobs2 needed over the next five years to fill the broadband worker gap, and other organizations calculate there will be more than 800,000 jobs required through the end of the decade.

Regardless of what the actual figure is, all can agree that we need more broadband workers if the BEAD and other broadband expansion programs are going to succeed. But the question is: how do we close the broadband worker gap?

Taking a Step Back: Why Work in Broadband?

There are many misconceptions about broadband-related jobs and the opportunities they offer economically, professionally, and personally. For example, let’s take the profession of broadband technicians. Many believe that broadband technicians have both limited earning potential and limited paths for career advancement. There are also the widespread beliefs that rural areas (where broadband technicians are needed most) lack the economic and social opportunities of urban and suburban parts of the country.

But let’s look at the facts. As of November 2023, the average yearly pay for telecommunications technicians in the U.S. was $60,190,3 and annual salaries are reaching nearly $200,000, according to ZipRecruiter. A six-figure salary would put young technical workers in the top echelons of STEM earners (whose average salary is $64,000), and well ahead of non-STEM earners (whose average salary is $40,000).4 Furthermore, the allocation of $42.5 billion in BEAD funding specifically for underserved communities opens countless possibilities for economic growth, social development, and an enhanced quality of life in rural areas.

Given the growing diversity of broadband services (gaming, telehealth, virtual reality, etc.) in demand, applicants filling these more technical roles can also garner a wide range of experience as they progress in their careers. Whether working on multi-family homes or small businesses, rural technical workers can learn highly valuable and transferable skills when building out broadband networks.

And while major cities continue to be coveted destinations for tech workers, rural areas offer compelling advantages often overlooked. The cost of living in rural America, including essentials like housing, groceries, and healthcare, is generally significantly lower than in major cities. Beyond economics, rural communities foster deeper connections among residents, aided by smaller populations and more open space. The closely knit community lifestyle contrasts sharply with the increased loneliness often found in crowded urban settings, as noted by a 2023 World Economic Forum study. Furthermore, the mental health benefits of rural life have been well-documented, demonstrating positive correlation between time spent in nature with improved health and well-being.

FCC Recognizes the Workforce Gap Challenge Early On

In 2019, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) created the Broadband Infrastructure Deployment Job Skills and Training Opportunities Working Group5 to address ways to democratize and improve job skills training and development opportunities for the broadband infrastructure deployment workforce. The working group identified key challenges related to the broadband workforce issue including the lack of awareness of broadband career opportunities; the need for standardized nationwide training programs; and the dwindling skilled workforce due to retirement and other reasons. After identifying these challenges, the working group submitted specific recommendations including:

  • promoting the formation of (or a coalition of) broadband-related trade associations to jointly advance workforce development initiatives and to centralize and coordinate industry efforts,
  • undertaking a targeted outreach initiative to ensure that broadband workforce training programs are being implemented and promoted both in rural and urban areas equally, and
  • designing and promoting initiatives focused on outreach (especially to underrepresented communities), on-campus recruiting, mentoring new hires, and recognizing the existing workforce.

A Coalition is Needed

In addition to the challenges and recommendations identified by the FCC’s working group, there is also an urgent need to bring all key stakeholders required to build these next-generation communications networks together and present a unified front to address the broadband workforce shortage issue. Key stakeholders include government, industry, and academia. Each will play a critical role:

  • Government. Focused effort on workforce development programs that will provide the needed training and education in coordination with the telecommunications industry.
  • Industry. Expanding the training opportunities across the country and offering competitive pay/benefits, development, and career advancement opportunities.
  • Academia. Working with all key stakeholders, develop and promote more broadband-specific curriculum.

Broadband Nation: A Single Coordinated, Consolidated Initiative

The Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA) is committed to closely collaborating with our government, industry, and academia stakeholders to support the mission of connecting all Americans. We have been actively supporting our stakeholders by providing education and resources to implement the requirements for the BEAD program and are continuously working to overcome the challenges that hinder the realization of this historic opportunity.

In line with this commitment, we are intensifying our focus on addressing the workforce gap issue. TIA has established Broadband Nation ( with the support of Fierce Telecom, owned by Questex, a National Workforce Development Program, to attract, train and deliver the next generation of broadband talent at the local, state and national level.

Through an online portal,6 this program will be a one-stop shop that will provide access to available training and job opportunities within the broadband industry. Furthermore, it will bring together key stakeholders from government, industry, and academic institutions to tackle workforce challenges head-on at the Broadband Nation Expo to be held in Washington, D.C., in October. As recommended by the FCC’s Broadband Infrastructure Deployment Job Skills and Training Opportunities Work Group, Broadband Nation represents a “single coordinated and consolidated initiative through a single coalition” to fill the gaps in the U.S. broadband workforce.

Every citizen in the U.S., regardless of education or income level, should be united in the mission to connect all Americans to high-speed, reliable broadband. But without a workforce skilled in broadband, millions of people in unserved and underserved communities will continue to be shunned from opportunities that the rest of the country enjoys without a second thought. Will the successful deployment of the BEAD program be added to the list of our nation’s most historic “construction” projects? With all the key stakeholders working together to address the workforce shortage issue, I firmly believe it will.

1. GAO, Telecommunications Workforce,
2. FBA, Finding New Labor with a New Start,
3. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Telecommunications Technicians,
4. NCSES, STEM Median Wage and Salary Earnings,
5. FCC, Broadband Infrastructure Deployment Job Skills and Training Opportunities Working Group,
6. Broadband Nation Program,
About the Author

Melissa Newman | Vice President of Government Affairs, TIA

Melissa Newman is Vice President of Government Affairs at TIA. She has over 20 years of experience as a seasoned executive in telecommunications companies with expertise in government affairs, public relations and legal. Recently, Melissa worked at Transit Wireless as Vice President of External Affairs and Senior Legal Counsel in New York City where she oversaw contract negotiations, human resources (legal) and external affairs for the company. Prior to this position, she worked at Wilkinson Barker Knauer, a premier telecommunications law firm in Washington, D.C. Melissa spent 18 years at CenturyLink/Qwest/US West as Vice President, Federal Policy and Regulatory Affairs responsible for developing and implementing the company’s federal regulatory advocacy before the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), other federal agencies and the Administration.

Melissa served as Deputy Division Chief of the Policy Division in the Common Carrier Bureau of the FCC, and as Legal Counsel to the Common Carrier Bureau Chief. Prior to these positions, she was an associate at the law firm of Willkie Farr & Gallagher where she practiced communications law. 

Melissa was a member of the Board of Directors of the National Exchange Carriers Association (NECA) from 2011-2016, serving on the Audit and Compensation Committees. She was recognized in Fierce Telecom Magazine — Women in Wireline 2014: Leaders shaping telecom services, innovation, and policy. She has served on the Federal Communications Bar Association Executive Committee and was a Federal Consumer Advisory Committee Member at the FCC.

Melissa received her B.A. from the University of Minnesota and her J.D. from the Washington University School of Law in St. Louis, Missouri.

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