By Leticia Latino-van Splunteren, Chair of the Job Skills and Training Opportunities Working Group of the FCC’s Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee and CEO of Neptuno USA
As a mom to young children (8 and 4), I caught myself the other day asking a question that I never liked answering myself when I was a young girl.
“What do you want to be when you grow up, Christian?” I asked my oldest child. I quickly changed my mind. “No wait! Don’t tell me now. You have time to think about it as you grow up.”
But he had an answer ready.
“A video-game developer Mommy. I don’t need to think about it!”
And there it was – the moment many parents face when they hear their kids giving them an answer about their vision of their “work” future that they are not fond of. Granted, at 8, it is normal for children come up with answers like firefighter, policeman, pilot or actor (which he’s already pursuing!). But I don’t think I over-assume when I say that a good chunk of us parents would much rather hear answers like doctor, architect, lawyer or engineer. I know I had to fight the urge to suggest any of those options when I heard my son’s answer.
The truth of the matter is that in today’s world, many of the so-called ‘blue collar’ jobs are providing total earnouts that can potentially exceed those of traditional careers. Moreover, it is proven that young adults who decide to pursue a technical career start earning money faster, albeit at a lesser rate, than those who go to college or university.
If everyone who applied for a student loan to fund higher education finished with a degree, there would be no argument. But according to a 2018 report by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), almost one-third of students nationwide who took out loans left school before completing a degree. This statistic shows that a good portion of our youth is left with a substantial amount of debt, no career, low-self esteem and most likely no Plan B. Talk about starting life stressed out! So, although we, as parents, want what’s best for our children, should we push the college path no matter what?
I was recently given a great honor by Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai when he named me Chair of the Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee working group on Broadband Infrastructure Deployment Job Skills and Training Opportunities. The mission of this group is to identify ways to expand and improve job skills training and development opportunities for the broadband infrastructure deployment workforce. The more I am involved with the group and the more I learn about workforce trends and statistics, the more it becomes something that I am personally passionate about.
I come from a family business, based abroad, where most of our workers are tower climbers and field personnel. From the time I was a little girl, I remember my father trying to create a life-long career path for our technicians. In fact, many of our current workers are second-generation employees who have benefited from knowledge and training passed down from family members that can’t be learned in school.
In the United States, the wireless industry is facing a workforce crisis. Did you know that 40% of American employers report they can’t find employees with the training they need to fill the 5G gap? Yes, it is official. There is a broadband workforce gap, and we need to address it with urgency to keep the competitive edge that has always been ours.
If you were to informally ask industry leaders why, in their opinion, there is a technical workforce skills gap, some of the most common answers would be a total lack of awareness from society (parents and youngsters) that these opportunities are even there, a “ditch digger” label that society gives to field technicians, and a generational retirement wave with the inability to recruit new workers, among others.
The average tower technician can expect to earn between $19 and $32 per hour, according to Learning Alliance Corp., which has developed a program to cultivate skilled tower climbers and other broadband professionals. (Learning Alliance is the first registered Authorized Training Partner (ATP) that is using WIA’s TEC and TIRAP curriculum for its students.) The company’s research on employment trends in the tower space found there are at least 1,279 tower technician positions listed each month by more than 300 employers in the United States, ranging from tower tech apprentices to tower tech level 3.
Competition for skilled workers is getting ferocious, and technicians that have certain skills — tower climbing for instance — are extremely in demand and may have the upper hand in job negotiations. Recruiting and training the right candidates is, however, crucial. Some of these jobs are rigorous, require travel and must be done outdoors (which can become extremely demanding during winter).
These are exciting times. We are in front of a true digital revolution, where technology is at the center of pretty much everything we do, like it or not. We hear about how cities are becoming “smarter” and even how our home property value is affected by the connectivity it has. We, as an industry, must strive to ensure that everyone gets broadband at accessible prices, that the digital divide disappears, and that we create meaningful technical career paths that can make a huge impact both in our economy and in people’s lives.
The good news is that the ball is rolling at the highest level. There has been legislation introduced both in the House of Representatives and in the Senate that would enable grants, apprenticeship funds, creation of more training centers, etc. The FCC has shown full commitment to the cause, with Chairman Pai appointing an Advisory Working Group to focus solely on this important topic, and the vocal advocacy of Commissioner Brendan Carr about the importance of having a skilled workforce to win the race to 5G and build next-generation networks in communities around the country.
Industry associations, such as the Wireless Infrastructure Association (WIA), are adding enormous value to the mission by creating training programs through its Telecommunications Education Center (TEC) which has trained more than 700 students already this year, sponsoring the nationwide Telecommunications Industry Registered Apprenticeship Program (TIRAP), and even creating a specific award to honor Wireless Workforce Champions.
I personally became involved by participating in an ambitious and very successful Congressional Fly-In in DC organized by the National Association of Tower Erectors (NATE) which really ignited my interest in getting more personally involved, as I deal first-hand with the stress of not finding the right people to hire sometimes in my day-to-day job.
What else can be done, you may ask? We can all help raise awareness. We all have young people in our lives, we all know someone that might not be happy with their job and that could be a great fit for this line of business. Make them aware that telecom is one of the most vibrant and dynamic industries they can get into, make them aware that nearly 3 million jobs are expected to be created by 5G deployments, and make them aware that the good news is that THE HIRING IS HAPPENING NOW!
So, “Christian, have you seen those towers that Mommy helps build? Since you love heights, I know of something really cool for you to do when you grow up.”
Leticia Latino-van Splunteren is the CEO of Neptuno USA, an offspring of Neptuno Group, a company with over 45 years of international hands-on experience in the telecom, broadcasting and utilities industries. Besides engineering, manufacturing and installation of towers and the build-to-suit of telecom sites, Neptuno has several patents, developed an enterprise-grade asset-tracking software and uses a revolutionary 3D Tower Mapping that enables the creation of a digital library of the network that is vital in emergency recovery situations. She was appointed to chair the FCC’s BDAC working group on Broadband Infrastructure Deployment Job Skills and Training Opportunities by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai in June 2019. She was recently included in the 2018 Women of M2M list by Connected World Magazine, which is comprised of some of the most powerful women in the technology sector selected because they each brought a unique lens to their respective companies that helped push connected technologies forward.
Read more insights from Latino-van Splunteren here:
The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of WIA or its members.
 Source: “Assessing the 5G Skills Gap” CompTia