Patrick Halley’s Keynote for Broadband Breakfast on November 2, 2022 – Workforce Development Measures

The following remarks were delivered by WIA President and CEO Patrick Halley ahead of a Broadband Breakfast virtual panel on Workforce Development Measures. Video of these remarks and the subsequent panel discussion can be viewed on Broadband Breakfast’s website.

Thank you, Drew, for hosting this important discussion and for assembling some great panelists.

I am the President and CEO of The Wireless Infrastructure Association. We represent the businesses that build, own, and operate our nation’s wireless infrastructure. In addition to our policy advocacy, WIA is very focused on solutions to ensure that we have a well-trained and robust workforce capable of meeting the broadband deployment demands of today and tomorrow. It is an issue we started working on about seven years ago and one that we feel passionate about through our work on apprenticeship, training, and sector-based partnerships with government and academia. 

So, I am thrilled to be speaking with you about this topic at a really critical time in our nation’s history. It is incumbent on all of us to step up efforts to recruit, train, retrain, and maintain the workers that we need to continue building and operating the best broadband networks in the world. We need to think big, starting in our nation’s middle and high schools and in our colleges and universities showing future employees their potential broadband career pathway, and continuing that effort with existing employees in companies across the entire broadband ecosystem.    

To help frame the discussion I think it is appropriate that we pause and take a look back to similar national infrastructure deployment projects.

President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Rural Electrification Act into law on May 20, 1936, providing federal loans for the installation of electrical systems in rural areas and creating thousands of jobs via the Rural Electrification Administration.  Crews, including teams of electricians, travelled nationwide stringing thousands of miles of wire in areas previously in the dark. Providing electricity for farms and homes had a profound effect on rural America and ultimately all Americans. Imagine for a moment if those crews of electricians and other workers were not available to get the job done. 

Almost twenty years later to the day, President Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 into law, a bill that allocated $26 billion to pay for a 41,000-mile “National System of Interstate and Defense Highways.” Federal funds were made available to state transportation agencies, which built the Interstate highways. The impact of that action had substantial ramifications to the safety and quality of life of Americans in every state and had a massive impact on the American economy. Imagine again if, after the excitement of that legislative achievement, there were not enough workers to build the highway systems in every state. 

Unimaginable today, but those highways and electrical systems did not build themselves; they required tens of thousands of workers to do the hard work of digging trenches, climbing poles, stringing wires and laying asphalt.    

And so here we are, in November 2022, nearly a year after the signing of the historic Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021, legislation that provided $65 billion to connect every American to high-speed broadband, including $42.5 billion through the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program. This kind of public investment has been called a “once is a generation” opportunity. And rightly so. 

But it’s important to remember that this public investment is on top of approximately $80 billion in annual private investment by broadband service providers. In fact, the wireless industry alone will invest over $40 billion in private capital in 2022, an all-time high, as carriers build out 5G networks on a national and regional scale, covering new areas and adding capacity to existing networks. 

This combination of public and private investment in broadband infrastructure will have profound effects on virtually every aspect of our lives and be a key driver of the U.S. economy. But like the roads and electrical systems before them, broadband networks will not build themselves. They will be built, operated, maintained and upgraded over time by a well-trained, highly-skilled, workforce of broadband industry professionals – tower climbers and technicians, fiber optic technicians and fiber splicers, RF engineers, overhead and underground utility installers, small cell technicians, trencher and heavy equipment operators, and many others.

Which brings us to the topic of today’s discussion: How can states sustain and expand the broadband workforce? I am particularly excited to discuss workforce development measures at the state level because there is both a huge need and opportunity to invest in workforce training, with federal Infrastructure Act funding on top of other federal funding sources and existing state programs.  

In fact, while it tends to receive less focus than other topics, states are actually required to include a detailed workforce development plan as part of their five-year plan and as part of the deployment proposal in their initial BEAD proposals to NTIA. BEAD deployment funds can be used for workforce development efforts that include Registered Apprenticeships and pre-apprenticeships, and community college and/or vocational training for broadband-related occupations to support network deployment, maintenance, and upgrades.

The panelists speaking today can provide more details on what these types of initiatives look like on the ground. For example, WIA serves as the Department of Labor’s designated Industry Intermediary for Registered Apprenticeship in the telecommunications industry, working with communications companies to expand apprenticeship through the Telecommunications Industry Registered Apprenticeship Program or “TIRAP”. WIA is pleased to be partnering with like-minded organizations like NATE, the Fiber Broadband Association, and PCCA and 80 companies on this effort, with over 3,500 apprentices registered to date.   

BEAD deployment funds can also be utilized for programs known as “sector-based partnerships” – public private partnerships at the state level that bring together relevant stakeholders from government, industry, and education to develop, implement, and promote workforce training programs. Eric Leach from Ohio can provide more details on what that looks like in Ohio today. WIA is a proud partner in Ohio, serving as the industry intermediary for Ohio’s Broadband and 5G Sector Partnership where we work with The Ohio State University and other schools to bring together industry and academia to create industry-driven curricula on broadband and 5G technologies for the entire state. It is a highly successful approach with clear coordination and leadership from the governor’s office to establish a telecom sector partnership of industry (with our employers), the education system, the workforce development sector, and community leaders. I encourage other states to take a close look at this as you consider workforce development planning in your state. 

The reality is that right now we do not have a workforce in place that is sufficient to meet the medium and long-term needs of our broadband future. However, thanks to the bipartisan vision of Congress in the Infrastructure Act, the leadership at NTIA implementing the law, cooperative efforts within industry and state leaders like Eric Leach in Ohio who understand this challenge, there is a clear path forward.    

When it comes to expanding broadband access and closing the digital divide, the bottom line for states is this: Planning to meet workforce challenges is just as important as planning what type of infrastructure to deploy, and needs to be treated as such. States need to develop workforce programs and make their communities aware of these opportunities to meet the demand in the broadband industry that will only increase with BEAD funding in the coming years. 

Connecting all Americans with high-speed broadband and continuing to upgrade existing networks is a big deal. And we need big solutions to ensure that we have the workforce in place that can get the job done today and into the future. WIA is focused on solutions to meet the challenge, and we look forward to working with our government and industry partners to chart a path forward to connect everyone, everywhere. 

Thank you.