How the wireless infrastructure industry is preparing for 5G workforce needs 

5G will change jobs. Not only will the technology create thousands of jobs to build out the networks that will support 5G, but applications enabled by 5G will also change millions of jobs across industries and around the world. 

Connect (X): All Access panel, “Getting Ready for 5G: Preparing a Skilled Workforce for Future Wireless Networks,” explored the skills that are needed and the workforce development efforts that are taking place to address 5G. The panel was moderated by WIA Chief Technology Officer Dr. Rikin Thakker. Panelists included Cathy Piche, Vice President of Project Delivery & Design and Construction at Crown Castle; Nichole Thomas, Vice President of Operations for Dish Wireless’ Central region; Dan Butterworth, Vice President of Operations, SL Build Self-Performing Services, at Ericsson; and Joe Dyer, Chief Strategy Officer at the National Spectrum Consortium. Both Piche and Butterworth serve on WIA’s Workforce Development Committee, which is addressing challenges around the 5G workforce and providing recommendations to the Telecommunications Industry Registered Apprenticeship Program (TIRAP) and training programs including the Telecommunications Education Center (TEC).  

“5G is here, and every 10 years we see a new generation of technology coming out,” said Dr. Thakker. He outlined three things needed to make 5G deployments successful – spectrum, capital, and workforce. New spectrum continues to come to market and the industry has invested a stunning level of capital – more than $100 billion – just in the past few years. However, workforce needs are often overlooked, he said. 

“A number of reports and studies have suggested that 5G is going to create up to 4.6 million new jobs, directly and indirectly,” said Dr. Thakker. “We know that as the future wireless technology evolves the workforce needs to evolve along with that, and the skills of yesterday and today are not going to suffice.” 

The National Spectrum Consortium studied the impact of 5G on job growth in its report, “The Third Wave: How 5G Will Drive Job Growth over the Next 15 Years.” Dyer said 5G will drive growth in both blue-collar and white-collar jobs spanning physical labor, science and engineering.  

“There’s a tremendous buildout and those are the areas that see the largest growth, but some of them may surprise you,” said Dyer. “Construction is not a surprise, and manufacturing is not a surprise, but education and healthcare are two areas of tremendous growth. I have a niece in medical school right now, and it’s interesting to see how that education is going to change because so much of medical education has been based on memory for literally hundreds of years. Now, thanks to 5G, you’ll have the world body of knowledge in your pocket, immediately available in a continuous stream.” 

As companies in the wireless infrastructure industry begin to ramp up their workforces to build out 5G networks, hiring teams are looking for employees with engineering, project management, site acquisition and constructions skills. But as telecom and technology increasingly converge, many hiring teams are looking to adjacent industries for employees with expertise in machine learning and automation, for example. 

“We’re looking for diverse thought and perspectives, as well as experienced and tenured individuals,” said Piche. “We want to have a combination and a blend of people that have great experience building out networks and working with our customers to build networks, and then we want to have some evolution as we think about our data and digital strategy. Most importantly, I think the talent that we’re striving to achieve are folks that can really push the limits. I am a huge believer of experiences, external viewpoints, pushing our limits and adding different ways of thoughts and different diverse opinions to help us to continue to grow as an industry and as a wireless space.” 

Ericsson is addressing the need for an expanded and evolved workforce with four Centers of Excellence across the country that house indoor and outdoor equipment, such as lattice towers and monopoles, where students can learn to install radios, work in cabinets and even operate bucket trucks. Butterworth noted soft skills are in demand as well. 

“As we move into the new technology of 5G, things are changing from basically turning a wrench to having more soft skills,” said Butterworth, pointing to computer and communications skills. “The workforce that maybe would climb a tower and be up there all day, they’re going to be doing a lot of different things in the future. A lot of other skills are going to be needed. I think that’s going to be the challenge for all of us.“ 

Dish has been making a big splash with hiring as it works to build a 5G network from scratch. 

“We are moving really fast here,” said Thomas. “We have some pretty hefty FCC deadlines so we’re marching really quickly toward that. We have, in the last nine months, ramped up our workforce by 1000s of percent. It’s been an incredible ride. We have experienced managers in place, but we’ve also really hired for potential, and we’re seeing that come to light.” 

Some may worry that 5G will be disruptive and potentially eliminate jobs in all industries. But Dyer said history tells us the opposite typically occurs. Dyer noted, for example, that 5G could make automobiles safer by allowing cars to have more spatial awareness and avoid accidents. That could impact body repair business but perhaps even more so the automobile insurance industry. 

“The biggest disruption the world has ever seen was the advent of the combine to harvest wheat, and other grains, and it lowered the agricultural workforce by three orders of magnitude,” said Dyer. “It was certainly disruptive, but if you look at America’s history of productivity and growth, you’ll see that after a dip, we recovered from that very quickly and better than ever before. We’re capable of change. Tremendous redeployment education is going to be critically important.” 

For the wireless infrastructure industry, that change may come in the form of partnerships with educational institutions and engaging with today’s tech-savvy youth to attract them to jobs building out wireless networks. Knowledge of RF principals and cloud-based tools as well as an understanding of artificial intelligence and machine learning will come into play along with hands-on skills. Dyer said he is seeing more respect for people who do hands-on work, more partnerships established early on between educational institutions and the industry, and a recognition that a high-school education coupled with autonomous tools and artificial intelligence can lead to a good career. 

“There is still going to be that group of individuals that are not going to go to college and they’re not going to be the engineers,” said Butterworth, who pointed to a resurgence in shop classes in high schools across the country as an important trend. “They’re the ones that are going to move into that hands-on type of deployment in the field. We lost a lot of that training over the years, and, and now it’s starting to come back. It’s super exciting to see a whole generation of young folks that are coming out of high schools that we can get into the field, start work and start making a salary to support their families. There’s a whole new opportunity for them that they didn’t have before.” 

The panel can be watched in its entirety at