Executives in the US telecom network construction sector have been arguing for years that they're having difficulties finding enough skilled workers to build new fiber and 5G networks. But the president of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) union – who has been working in the industry since 1968 – says that's not necessarily true.
"I want to address some misinformation," Christopher Shelton wrote in testimony to the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology of the Committee on Energy and Commerce. The CWA represents around 700,000 workers in private and public sector employment, primarily in the telecom industry. "I know many of you have heard about alleged worker shortages in the telecommunications industry in recent months. I urge you to be skeptical of these claims. AT&T and other telecom companies have laid off tens of thousands of workers in the past few years, including thousands of well-trained construction technicians, while non-union contractor companies claim they can't find qualified workers."
Shelton continued: "There is no evidence of a contemporary labor shortage based on detailed analysis of wage and employment data. The lowest paid 10% of workers in telecom actually saw their wages decline by 12% in real terms since the 1970s, driven by outsourcing and the loss of union representation. When wireless infrastructure companies and their lobbyists start talking about workforce shortages, ask them for proof."
Recent Light Reading reporting shows that AT&T and Verizon collectively have eliminated 95,000 jobs in the past five years.
However, Shelton's viewpoint is in direct opposition to the prevailing attitudes on the topic among most wireless industry representatives and many lawmakers.
"The US currently faces a shortfall of skilled workers needed to deploy broadband across the country, to win the race to 5G, and to ensure robust fiber, mobile and fixed wireless networks," a group of telecom industry trade associations, including CTIA, Incompas and others, wrote in a January letter to President Biden. "Needed investments in broadband infrastructure will increase demand on a labor force already in short supply. To improve the efficiency of federal funding, a corresponding initiative is needed to develop a workforce properly trained with the skills to deploy next generation wired and wireless networks."
The associations wrote that the US telecommunications industry employs a total of 672,000 workers, with average annual wages of $77,500, and they expect the rollout of 5G and other technologies to create 850,000 more "new direct broadband and 5G jobs" through 2025. As a result they're asking for legislation designed to encourage the development of educational programs to train new networking technicians, including specifically apprenticeship projects.
"As wireless technology evolves, the workforce needs to evolve with it. The skills of yesterday no longer suffice for the demands of today and tomorrow's wireless jobs," wrote Jonathan Adelstein, CEO of the Wireless Infrastructure Association (WIA), in his own House testimony. The WIA primarily represents the nation's cell tower operators, and has been working for years to develop training programs for new tower climbers and other technicians.
But in online testimony Wednesday during the House subcommittee's hearing on broadband, CWA's Shelton reiterated his position on the topic. He said CWA counts thousands of laid-off members who are "trained and ready to go this afternoon or tomorrow," and can meet that demand for networking technicians. He suggested that tower companies and others aren't willing to hire unionized workers and to pay higher wages.
However, Shelton's claims, and the question of the telecom industry's workforce, did not receive much attention during the House hearing. Instead, lawmakers generally discussed ways to cross the digital divide, whether in rural areas where customers don't have connections or in urban areas where customers can't afford connections. They also covered topics including speedy cell site upgrades, telehealth services, online schooling and accurate broadband mapping.
Many GOP lawmakers during the hearing also pointed to a new package of proposed legislation covering a variety of telecom topics. And in the issue of workforce training specifically, a Democrat and Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee recently introduced the Telecommunications Skilled Workforce Act designed to "help close the workforce shortage in the telecommunications industry."
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