How to attract, educate and retain workers to fill a projected skills gap of up to 25,000 employees needed to build out 5G networks is a persistent topic in the wireless infrastructure industry. Panelists tackled this topic during a Connect (X): All Access session that explored what skills are missing in today’s workforce, how to find the right employees for current and future work, what training options are working to get new employees up to speed, and how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting recruitment and training efforts.
WIA TEC Instructor and Curriculum Developer Barb Burba, Director of Government Operations for InSite Wireless Group, moderated the panel that included Tom Kane, President of Network Building + Consulting; Jason Taylor, Vice President of Safety, Quality and Sustainability at KGPCo; Brian Leary, Executive Vice President of PIKE Telecom; and Adria Horn, Vice President of Workforce at Tilson Technology Management. View the entire session titled “The Systematic Approach to Developing a Skilled and Safe 5G Workforce“ on demand at https://connectxallaccess.vfairs.com/.
While training and apprenticeships are key to developing the skilled workforce needed in the coming years, the panelists also pointed to management training, strong company culture, soft skills development, mentorships, critical thinking, communication and attractive benefits as key to building and retaining a strong workforce.
“I think of the skills gap as a short-term and long-term problem, and you really need to solve both of them,” said Horn. Developing internship and apprenticeship programs, making time for training and finding pipelines of potential employees have helped the company address short-term workforce issues, while offering benefits like paid family leave have helped solve long-term issues, she said.
“The skills gap is skills in part. It’s not skills in whole,” said Horn. “If you cannot, as a company, address the needs of the individual person’s tenure to then be able to teach skills in the future and keep people who understand the fit of your company and the culture, then it’s a short-term view that will result in a long-term problem.”
Bringing new people into the industry will be crucial moving forward, said Taylor.
“We are competing with the union shops and the utilities and that is very difficult,” said Taylor, who pointed to the value of training and apprenticeship programs, WIA and the collective brainpower of the wireless infrastructure industry to compete for a limited pool of talent. “The industry doesn’t have enough people. We need to do a better job at getting the word out that telecom has good-paying jobs. A lot of times this work is getting done in a data center that nobody sees, or on top of a tower that’s 400 feet up, and it’s just not in your face the way a road worker is or those types of professions are. We have to figure out a way to get new individuals into the industry.”
Companies are taking advantage of certification programs, partnerships with colleges and universities, training programs like the Telecommunications Education Center and apprenticeship programs like the Telecommunications Industry Registered Apprenticeship Program to provide the in-depth position-specific training their new employees need to do their jobs. Advanced technologies are also providing training opportunities.
“One of the big things we do is cross training,” said Leary. “If you’re a tower climber, on those rain days or schedule gaps we’re going to train you on how to splice fiber. We’re going to train you on how to install a small cell. We’re going to give you all the tools possible to be a big part of our company.”
Leary said PIKE Telecom has training offices throughout the country and offers virtual reality training where employees can learn to operate a bucket truck or install a small cell in a booth that eliminates some of the safety hazards that training on site could present.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way companies work in the field, it also has affected recruitment and training. But there may be a silver lining.
“We’re going to come out of this with a story to tell to job seekers, and we do try to tell that story in our recruiting,” said Kane. “NB+C was here for 1G, now we’re doing 5G and we are going to be doing 7G and 8G. That’s what we look forward to. Unfortunately for the country we’re going to have some pretty decimated industries that are going to have a very tough time for the foreseeable future. There won’t be recruiting, there won’t be a story to tell that gets college grads or young professionals or skilled workers interested (in those industries). But hopefully we will have a story to tell as we come out of this that we are busier than ever, we have tremendous backlog, and we’re in the first inning of 5G. Come on in.”