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2023 in review: Job changes and layoffs

The telecom sector workforce has continued to shrink this year and AI developments threaten more of the same in 2024.

Iain Morris

December 18, 2023

4 Min Read
Tiles spelling out Automation Control System in a crossword style
(Source: photo_gonzo/Alamy Stock Photo)

It has been a miserable year for telecom sector employees on both the vendor and operator sides. Ericsson revealed plans to cut 8,500 jobs around the time of Mobile World Congress Barcelona. Months later, Nokia said it would be forced to slash between 9,000 and 14,000 amid a lack of telco enthusiasm for buying vendor products. AT&T's workforce has contracted by more than 10,000 jobs since the start of the year. Verizon's has shrunk by 6,600.

When will it end? Probably not in the foreseeable future, as corporate bosses coo excitedly about generative artificial intelligence (AI) and consider how they can use it to save money. Ericsson had managed a net reduction of just 4,200 jobs by the end of September. Nokia will have barely begun its own program of layoffs. Since 2018, AT&T and Verizon together have shed 172,200 jobs. Europe's big operators are similarly hacking into the workforce. Vodafone aims to cut 11,000 jobs. In May, Philip Jansen, the exiting boss of BT, reckoned the UK operator could feasibly lose 55,000 of the 130,000 people it then employed (including contractors) by 2030.

No doubt, cuts are partly a response to financial malaise. Telcos, broadly speaking, have picked up all the customers they can and failed to expand beyond the sale of data connectivity. In Europe, efforts to buy or merge with rivals have been shot down by regulators. Internet companies have become fiercer rivals, putting further downward pressure on prices. Only by reducing costs have many telcos been able to safeguard their profits at historical levels and pay off their long standing debts.

In this context, it is hardly a surprise that AI should stoke employee concerns. Operators such as AT&T, Telenor and Vodafone have already attributed some cuts to automation. Chatbots minimize the need for customer service assistants. With intent-based systems, a person can specify the objective and leave bots to carry out the tasks previously handled by other people. Software increasingly writes itself. Networks and network operations centers are becoming "zero touch," as industry folk say. A source who was formerly a senior technical executive in a telco reckons there is no part of the network that cannot be automated.

The real question is whether people will be needed at all. But entrusting customer relationships and critical systems to AI would be incredibly risky. As sophisticated as it might be, generative AI is evidently prone to making mistakes, the phenomenon of so-called "hallucinations." Strictly speaking, the AI label is a misnomer. ChatGPT and its brethren clearly do not think or understand as humans do. At best, they do Internet-based pattern recognition to a very high level.

With all this in mind, if society turns mundane and repetitive but extremely important tasks over to machines, people may eventually lose the skills needed to perform them. The implication is that society becomes even more dependent on technology than it already is, which is all very well until AI begins living up to its name.

On that cheery note, here's a roundup of Light Reading stories from the past year on the topic of jobs and layoffs:

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About the Author(s)

Iain Morris

International Editor, Light Reading

Iain Morris joined Light Reading as News Editor at the start of 2015 -- and we mean, right at the start. His friends and family were still singing Auld Lang Syne as Iain started sourcing New Year's Eve UK mobile network congestion statistics. Prior to boosting Light Reading's UK-based editorial team numbers (he is based in London, south of the river), Iain was a successful freelance writer and editor who had been covering the telecoms sector for the past 15 years. His work has appeared in publications including The Economist (classy!) and The Observer, besides a variety of trade and business journals. He was previously the lead telecoms analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit, and before that worked as a features editor at Telecommunications magazine. Iain started out in telecoms as an editor at consulting and market-research company Analysys (now Analysys Mason).

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