Unemployment in the US is near record lows, which is clearly cause for celebration, but one unintended consequence is increasingly impacting the wireless industry: There aren't enough technicians to actually install 5G networks.
"The biggest challenge definitely is manpower," explained Rick Suarez, group president of MasTec Network Solutions, at the recent Connect (X) trade show. MasTec is a nationwide network installation company that handles much of the physical lifting involved in putting 5G antennas on top of cell towers.
Suarez said MasTech employes roughly 680 tower crews right now but has business for at least 900 crews.
"The good news is that our industry and the economy is on fire," he said, but added that there are a range of workforce issues pulling at MasTec and others in the industry. For example, he said networks are becoming increasingly complex -- some providers are moving to Massive MIMO antennas while others are installing more advanced CRAN network designs. Further, the work now stretches beyond the nation's big-four wireless network operators to now include the likes of smaller wireless operators, enterprises, fixed wireless Internet service providers and others.
And Suarez said all those issues don't even take into account operators' gradual moves from macro towers to small cells -- some in the industry have predicted wireless network operators could ultimately want to install millions of small cells around the country.
Finding enough skilled people to handle that work "is certainly an issue," said Charles Kriete, SVP of commercial business at wireless network component supplier Tessco.
But the issue isn't localized to just the wireless industry. "I'm seeing it on the fiber side more so than on the wireless side," said Ron Fangio, director of business development at network engineering and installation company Black & Veatch. Fangio said companies ranging from Crown Castle to Verizon to AT&T are installing new fiber lines and "there's not enough fiber engineers out there."
The notion of a workforce shortage in the telecom industry isn't necessarily new; the National Association of Tower Erectors (NATE) has been warning of such a problem for more than a year. Indeed, officials at the FCC have said that the sector could need an additional 20,000 technicians to meet demand for network upgrades.
But here, at the dawn of 5G, the situation feels increasingly acute. "We view that as the next challenge to solve," FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr said of the 5G workforce issue.
In response to the shortage of suitable technicians, those in the industry are increasingly working to create new avenues for education and recruitment.
Carr, for example, is focusing on new education programs aimed at training a new generation of network technicians. He recently visited the Tower Installation Program at Aiken Technical College, arguing that such a program could be replicated nationwide.
Similarly, Ericsson recently opened a new training center in Lewisville, Texas, partially to ensure it has enough technicians for 5G. And the Wireless Infrastructure Association (WIA) -- the trade group behind the recent Connect (X) trade show -- operates a Telecommunications Education Center geared toward technician training.
Jay Brown, CEO of tower company Crown Castle, said such training efforts have helped alleviate the situation. But he said that won't be enough; he said Crown Castle is working to recruit workers from among recent college graduates and veterans of the US armed forces. "We've found that to be incredibly successful," he said.
MasTec's Suarez said his company is spending time and money on training as well as working to get visas to potential employees looking to enter the country to work as network technicians.
Jeff Stoops, CEO of tower company SBA Communications, argued that part of the solution involves simply offering suitable benefits and healthcare to interested workers. "That matters," he said. "Providing those things are very important."
Even with all that, Stoops warned the situation could get worse. "We're not starting with a lot of folks who are out there looking [for work]. So we're going to have to start to get creative and really start looking," he said.
All that said, MasTec's Suarez acknowledged that not being able to fill demand is kind of a good problem to have. "The horizon for work and opportunity is bright," he said.