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As the US forges ahead on broadband deployments and gears up for BEAD, building up the dwindling fiber workforce is expected to be a significant focus in 2024.
December 20, 2023
Fiber network deployments in the US, while hitting a bit of a slowdown, are proceeding apace and will ramp up significantly as grants start to roll out from the $42.45 billion Broadband Equity Access and Deployment (BEAD) program in 2024 and 2025. But for BEAD to succeed, experts say states and service providers need to make workforce development a priority in early 2024.
"Workforce development in the broadband industry is in dire straits and change needs to happen now; we have a lot of catching up to do," said Deborah Kish, vice president of research and workforce development at the Fiber Broadband Association (FBA), in an email to Light Reading.
"In early 2024, before ISPs begin putting their plans in motion, recruitment and training are a must," she added. "If the industry continues doing what it has been doing for decades now (day workers, single task, skill training with no career building), the needed change will not occur."
Research released by the FBA this year estimates that up to 205,000 fiber optic technicians will be needed over the next five years, in addition to thousands of additional engineers and construction workers.
"States are unlikely to have faced a labor shortage similar to that facing the BEAD program," said the guidebook.
Indeed, according to Kish and others in the industry, the rise in demand for fiber builds has not been met with a rise in demand for fiber industry jobs. Meanwhile, the existing fiber workforce is aging out of the field.
"Over 60% of the current workforce is on a retirement path, meaning the limited workforce the industry does have won't be around for long, leading to missed deadlines, delayed launches, longer lead times to get subscriber services turned on," said Kish. "Additionally, there is a lack of proper training for technicians new to the industry, and that will only lead to additional and unnecessary costs."
Kish also worries that the issue itself isn't getting enough traction, saying that "workforce development seems more like a buzzword that isn't being taken seriously."
Service providers are feeling the labor crunch and worry about it worsening as BEAD funds roll out. "Labor is hard to find, specifically in outside plant construction," said Matt Hayes, CTO at service provider Highline, on a recent episode of The Divide podcast.
"Finding folks that have splice skills, or that have aerial and underground construction experience, that's just hard," added Hayes. "We're dealing with contractors and subcontractors. And, to try to fulfill the pipeline that's not just here now but that's going to come, you know, at the second half of '24 and beyond when all the BEAD momentum hits ... it's scary to think about."
The FBA specifically is also promoting its own fiber workforce development program, the Optical Telecom Installer Certification (OpTIC Path). FBA runs the program in partnership with community colleges, learning institutions and ISPs. Most recently, FBA announced that OpTIC Path will be offered by the College of The Albemarle, in Eastern North Carolina, in partnership with ISP Fybe. According to FBA, the organization is "currently engaged" with 40 states on rolling out the program in partnership with 44 service providers and 70 colleges or learning institutions.
"Throughout 2024, we will continue to work with community colleges, veterans programs, at-risk youth programs, organizations that work with marginalized individuals, and more to reach as many new fiber broadband technicians as possible," said Kish, who recently told Light Reading on The Divide podcast that veterans programs have been a successful way of recruiting fiber technicians.
Other efforts to boost the broadband workforce include fiber courses and live learnings led by the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers (SCTE), including its Fiber Structured Cabling for Broadband Fiber Installers course, as well as a Navigating the Fiber to the X (FTTx) Roadmap onsite course. In an email to Light Reading, SCTE Vice President of Global Market Development Steve Harris emphasized the utility of SCTE's hands-on fiber boot camp and construction engineering program (CEP) in particular for focusing on "practical skills and knowledge" relevant to the industry.
"From broadband fiber installation to fiber optic design, SCTE delivers the knowledge needed to advance the workforce," said Harris. "Additionally, we have recently launched new data transformation courses, including introductory data science and data analytics essentials, catering to the growing demand for data-driven expertise."
Partnering on training
In addition to SCTE and FBA, another company to offer a training program is Corning, which kicked off a fiber broadband training program in partnership with AT&T in 2022.
According to Jennifer Heavner, senior manager for customer education and programs marketing at Corning, this past year saw the program train 220 technicians, "achieving an impressive 98% job-placement rate," she said in an email to Light Reading. The company also launched 15 "train-the-trainer" programs.
Heavner added that Corning plans to continue the program in the new year, and further expand its reach: "Our Fiber Broadband Training Program will continue to deepen its impact in 2024, with AT&T as a co-sponsor," she said. The company is also collaborating with four nonprofit organizations to expand the program, with a focus on reaching veterans, women and minorities.
"Beyond our direct initiatives, we maintain collaborations with various training organizations in the industry, enhancing the workforce pipeline. Looking ahead to 2024 we will be broadening our installation-based training portfolio, reinforcing our commitment to industry-wide education and workforce development," said Heavner.
But beyond expanding the reach of these programs, for a long-term solution to building up the fiber workforce of tomorrow, FBA's Kish stresses the need to engage young people today.
"As an industry, we need to reach young people and create initiatives that bring awareness to the industry and to the career and its earning opportunities. Job fairs are fine, but we should create new opportunities to engage with young people and let them see how the networks are built and the cool outcome/product that they use every day—the internet," she said.
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