‘Whole nation’ effort needed to build broadband workforce
Federal investment could mean the creation of up to 150,000 broadband-related jobs, but state and local leaders must build robust apprenticeship programs and commit to diversity to make it happen.
The rollout of funding for new broadband infrastructure could create thousands of new jobs across the United States, but with the current shortage of tech workers, experts last week said governments will need to get creative to fill those vacancies.
The Broadband, Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) program set aside $42 billion for broadband expansion, a 10-year effort that the Government Accountability Office said in a recent report could create 23,000 jobs for skilled telecommunications workers just to build out that infrastructure.
Lucy Moore, a special policy advisor at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), which is administering the BEAD program, said during the GovExec Workforce Summit that up to 150,000 jobs could be created in construction and support for networks’ operation and maintenance.
But GAO and others warned there is a shortage of workers capable of filling those positions. Moore called for a “whole nation, whole of sector” approach to solving the skills gap problem, with partnerships between all levels of government and academic institutions, as well as coordination with nonprofits and other community groups to reach populations that have traditionally not been represented in these jobs.
States already feel worker shortages acutely, and they will be the ones to administer the BEAD grants.
The sector’s workforce is aging, with hundreds of unfilled positions already in states like Arkansas, Illinois, Ohio and Tennessee even before grants are disbursed, said Aury Kangelos, program director of human capital and workforce development at think tank Heartland Forward, which focuses on economic growth for the middle of the country.
Similarly, Lindsay Blumer, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Regional Training Partnership (WRTP), said state officials anticipate needing up to another 5,000 people to implement broadband across the state, including in its rural areas.
Robust apprenticeship programs and partnerships with academic institutions at all levels will encourage more people to join the broadband workforce. Beyond that, the state could expand the workforce by helping previously incarcerated individuals find jobs in broadband deployment, Blumer said.
Kangelos called on governments to not “be afraid to reach out” to internet service providers to understand where their workforce needs are, since they will be helping to implement the new networks. Heartland Forward is partnering with community colleges to help build out a training program for workers in Arkansas, he said.
Blumer said WRTP does a lot of youth outreach in Wisconsin, including attending high-school guidance counselor conventions to show them that a job in broadband is a “real, viable option” for students to learn a skilled trade with a robust career pathway. She also noted that required skills and credentials for jobs in broadband and other utilities are “somewhat similar,” so utility workers could be brought over to help with internet deployment.
Moore said that in NTIA’s Notice of Funding Opportunity for BEAD grants, states must include a plan of how they will use funds to create employment opportunities and ensure jobs are well paying and skilled, as well as detail how they will promote partnerships and apprenticeships.
The employment opportunities do not just exist in construction, either. Blumer noted that more telecom workers will be needed for network maintenance and upgrades, iron workers to build towers, skilled laborers for manufacturing components and even arborists to help make sure lines properly go through rural areas and forests. Smaller internet service providers will also need more support staff as they deal with more customers and larger service areas, Kangelos added.
Those partnerships and other efforts can help bring more employee diversity to the sector, panelists said. In addition to providing jobs, Blumer said employers should explore offering services like childcare, professional development or transportation to encourage applicants who have been excluded from these types of jobs in the past.
Moore said that companies having diverse representatives at job fairs helps potential applicants see people “who look like them.” In a bid to make “a workforce that looks like America,” NTIA’s workforce planning component also has a “particular focus on career pathways” for women, people of color and other historically marginalized populations,” she said.
Panelists noted that the opportunity to close the digital divide and rethink the broadband workforce is tremendous, but it will take a lot of work to ensure goals are met successfully. Blumer said if work programs are flexible, with the appropriate support services to help ensure the workforce “represents the communities in which the work has been done,” that will be one measure of success.
“I want to look back and say, ‘We did everything we could, we laid it all out, we spent the last five years doing the best, the most we could, because we owe it to those kids in 25 years, who are going to have seamless, equitable career pathways,’” Blumer said.
Kangelos agreed that leaders will need to be “intentional” about building a “career pathway” so workers can transition from broadband into other areas like cybersecurity and IT. Building that pipeline while bringing through future generations could help ensure people stay in this sector long-term, he said.