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Labor shortages spread into wireless industry's retail biz

T-Mobile retailer Arch Telecom is offering new employees a $700 signing bonus, according to research and consulting firm Wave7 Research. And Victra, a Verizon dealer, has been offering a $2,000 signing bonus at some of its stores.

The anecdotes are part of a nationwide trend that indicates a tight labor market in the US has begun affecting the wireless industry's retail operations.

"In the retail, we have basically all our stores open," Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg explained during a recent investor event, according to a Seeking Alpha transcript of his remarks. He was responding to a question about potential shortages in Verizon's workforce. "There is a tougher labor market here. But with the value we are giving our employees, we have seen a great retention of them. But a little bit tougher right now than a year ago or two years ago when it comes to that category of employees."

Verizon isn't alone.

"We're hearing that it's impacting store hours and we're seeing a few stores not opening during weekdays," explained Jeffrey Moore of Wave7. "My sense is that it's mostly a staffing issue, not the coronavirus."

He added: "Larger context is that it isn't just telecom, but sure, telecom is part of it."

Indeed, according to the National Federation of Independent Business, 67% of small businesses reported hiring or trying to hire in September, and 42% raised compensation as a result. But a record 51% still reported unfilled job openings, according to the Wall Street Journal.

There may be a myriad of reasons driving the situation, from federal stimulus money to ongoing Delta variant fears to rising inflation. But the situation has clearly affected plenty of facets of American life, from school bus route closures to shortened hours at the local coffee shop.

Interestingly, though, the situation may not have affected the wireless network-construction industry, at least not yet. "Our guys are busy. Don't get me wrong. They are really, really busy, working with different construction groups and firms across the country to be able to meet the demand, and they've been able to do it," explained American Tower's Tom Bartlett at a recent investor event, according to a Seeking Alpha transcript of his remarks. Bartlett was responding to a question about potential labor shortages affecting the cell tower company.

The CEO of SBA Communications, another massive cell tower owner in the US, offered similar comments. "So far, so good," said Jeffrey Stoops during his company's most recent quarterly conference call, according to a Seeking Alpha transcript of the event. "I haven't seen any issues on the labor side. I mean, the fact that we maintain a sizable in-house crew gives us some flexibility there."

The comments are noteworthy considering widespread warnings in the telecom industry of a shortage of technicians to build new networks and maintain existing ones.

"The United States faces a 5G labor shortage. Estimates suggest there are approximately 27,000 tower climbers prepared to install 5G equipment. However, it is projected that 20,000 more tower climbers are needed," US Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., said earlier this year, according to S&P Global.

Others agree. "Certainly, the skilled worker shortage is one of the most pressing challenges our members face. We hear from them all time on this issue," explained Matt Mandel of the Wireless Infrastructure Association (WIA), a trade association that represents the nation's cell tower companies, according to a recent report in AGL.

Nonetheless, the shortages are clear in the retail sector of the wireless industry. "Wave7 Research has been reporting that the labor market is tight, with shortages of personnel in some cases leading to shorter store hours and fewer reps to provide service to customers," the firm wrote in a recent report.

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Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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