Telecom Workforce Needs in a 5G World

As networks evolve, so do the skill-sets needed to design, deploy and maintain them. More software skills are needed at all levels as automation plays a larger role in everything from RF testing to how the network is monitored and managed. Networks are more software-defined than ever, and IT skills are in high demand. What skills are telecom employers seeking, and how can people augment their current skills?

Telecom Workforce Needs in a 5G World

Content Summary

Predictions for 5G workforce impacts
Cognitive and cognitive-physical job titles in a 5G world
Telecom 5G needs in a 5G world
Challenges for the broadband network deployment workforce
Network management and operations skills in a virtualized 5G world
How SouthEast Tech put together a telecom technician program
Discussion with Verizon’s Adam Koeppe

Exactly one week after President Joe Biden took office, a dozen telecommunications advocacy groups sent a letter to the newly inaugurated president and both houses of Congress. In it, the groups urged the federal government that if they were considering major infrastructure investments to improve connectivity during the pandemic and stimulate the economy through investing in broadband, that they also put a correspondingly large amount of investment into making sure that there are enough trained workers to deploy that infrastructure.

“The U.S. 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,” the groups, including CTIA, the Wireless Infrastructure Association, TIA, CCA and others wrote in the letter. “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 number of people working in telecommunications has decreased steadily since its peak in the 2007, according to figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But 2020, with its surge of work, learn and socialize- from-home, showed just how much of a lifeline that connectivity is. But deploying wireless networks calls for a unique combination of skills that cross industries: Construction and engineering, electrical, fiber installation, RF expertise. 5G promises to not only place new and different demands on the telecom workforce, but it promises to transform the workforce at large.

Predictions for 5G workforce impacts

Let’s start off by looking at some of the predictions for how 5G is, and will, impact the U.S. workforce overall.

An IHS Markit study in 2019 estimated that 5G will generate 22.3 million jobs around the world by 2035. An updated IHS Markit/Omdia analysis in late 2020, accounting for the pandemic, bumped up that figure to 22.8 million jobs. Around half of those jobs are expected to be located in China, but the U.S. is expected to see nearly 3 million.

An economic analysis by Accenture, released in February, estimates that between 2021-2015, 5G will add up $1.5 trillion to U.S. GDP and that 5G “has the potential to create or transform up to 16 million jobs across all sectors of the economy,” a figure that includes full-time, part-time and temporary jobs. Accenture also said that “multiplier effects will be felt in every industry,” and that every direct job created by 5G within the Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) sector is expected to create an estimated 1.8 additional jobs, for a total of up to 2.8 total jobs throughout the economy. In ICT, for instance, Accenture estimates that there will be 1.2 million direct jobs added by 5G, plus another 1 million indirect jobs and 1.2 million more “induced” jobs as a result of household spending created from those additional jobs. Accenture breaks down numbers on a per-state basis, ranging from up to 40,000 new jobs in North Dakota, to up to 2.4 million jobs in California.

A recent report from Boston Consulting Group estimated that in the U.S., 5G deployment will contribute $1.4 trillion to $1.7 trillion to national GDP over the next 10 years and create 3.8 million to 4.6 million jobs during that period. That estimated growth covers both direct infrastructure investment and deployment of the networks (about 30% of the total) as well as indirect growth in jobs and revenues as 5G enables innovation in other industries (about 70% of the total). “At first, 5G will contribute to economic activity directly through network infrastructure deployment,” the report says. “But as 5G networks continue to roll out and improve, an even greater wave of economic activity will occur indirectly as the networks enable new and improved use cases across industries. These will deliver significant socio-economic benefits through higher productivity, improved cost competitiveness, and better health and safety.”

The BCG report also makes some regional estimates of 5G GDP impacts, saying that while all of the U.S. will benefit, “regions with a “broader base of industries are likely to see more balanced, indirect 5G growth as those companies adopt new technologies such as smart sensors, virtual and augmented reality, and cloud computing. A region’s demographic characteristics such as age, education, and income will also influence how much and how quickly 5G contributes to the local economy.” The report estimates that for the 10-year period between 2020 and 2030, 5G deployment will create 800,000 to 1 million jobs from direct spending on capital and labor. Most of those jobs will be in construction, information services, and manufacturing of infrastructure-related equipment. But about 70% of the total value generated by 5G, the BCG report said, will be realized in indirect 5G benefits, as 5G transforms industries other than ICT itself. Those indirect impacts, it said, will create $1-1.2 trillion in value and 3-3.6 million jobs by 2030 in verticals such as finance, transportation and even manufacturing, where 5G could help U.S. factories to become globally competitive in efficiency and cost-effectiveness, drawing jobs back from overseas.

The Progressive Policy Institute released analysis in the fall of 2020 estimating that 5G and related technologies will create 4.6 million additional jobs by 2034. The paper estimated that as of April/May 2020, current 5G build-out and engineering activities were creating 106,000 jobs.

“In an important sense, 5G job creation is a countervailing force to job destruction from automation and globalization, and critically important in the post-COVID world,” the think tank’s authors wrote. The LTE-fueled transition to an app economy created mostly “cognitive” tech jobs which required a college education. 5G, the authors said, will drive many more cognitive tech jobs, but will also fuel demand for “mixed ‘cognitive-physical” skilled jobs, many of which fall into the category of installers and maintainers, giving examples such as field sensor technicians, construction drone operators and robotics maintenance.

The study’s authors also make the point that employment statistics projected by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics often miss the impacts of new technologies – for example, its projections for telecom industry jobs predicted a drop from 1993 to 2000 and ended up being off by 50% as the industry saw jobs explode, driven by 2G/3G growth. The BLS numbers for employment in the wireless industry peaked in 2007 and fell by half by 2019 – but, the PPI authors said, “In fact, wireless was creating jobs, but not in the wireless industry. More and more IT professionals were involved in either developing mobile apps, maintaining them after they were on the market, or supporting them with users.” But those jobs weren’t “in” wireless, by BLS reckoning – a category for app developers didn’t even exist, for example, but there was a surge in people working in “computer and mathematical occupations.” The same authors estimated in 2012 that, based on analysis of job postings, the “app economy” was supporting 466,000 jobs, which grew to more than 2.2 million by April 2019 – representing annual growth of more than 20%.

The “second wave” of wireless innovation, or the app economy, focused on industries “where the output can be reduced to bits and bytes”: Content, social networks, eCommerce – and those makeup less than 20% of the economy, the PPI said. What they called the “5G revolution” is “based on the applications of wireless to the challenges and opportunities in physical industries, such as agriculture, energy, construction, manufacturing, transportation, education, healthcare, and government (including defense).” The fact that 5G will straddle both the digital and physical worlds means that in addition to the type of high-paying tech jobs that came with the app economy, 5G is expected to “generate blue-collar jobs that use a combination of manual and problem-solving skills … which are likely to pay a wage premium as well.”

Cognitive and cognitive-physical job titles in a 5G world

Cognitive:

  • The precision agriculture application developer
  • Smart grid analyst
  • Digital manufacturing platform developer
  • Mobile logistics analyst
  • Online learning platform specialist
  • Health cloud information security specialist
  • Government database privacy specialist

Cognitive-Physical:

  • Field sensor technician
  • Construction drone operator
  • Household smart meter maintenance
  • Robotics maintenance
  • Autonomous vehicle maintenance
  • Telehealth installer
  • Tactical communications specialist
  • Elementary-high school telecom help desk

Telecom 5G needs in a 5G world

Overall, the U.S. telecommunications industry employs 672,000 workers, with average annual wages that exceed $77,500, according to figures from the joint association’s letter to Biden. “At the current rate of deployment, there will be 850,000 more new direct broadband and 5G jobs through 2025, which federal support would accelerate. While the jobs are there, our American workforce is not currently ready to fill them,” the letter said.

There are two broad factors at work here: There is massive network investment going on as the industry transitions to 5G and brings an enormous amount of new spectrum online for which carriers have paid billions of dollars over the past few years. That drives demand for boots-on-the-ground deployment workers. At the same time, network operators have been accelerating their investments in digitalization and network virtualization, which is shifting the desired skillset on the network operations and management side.

Digging into those two facets a little deeper, the drivers include:

Software-centrism and the move from virtualization to cloud-native

AT&T, for example, made a major push to control core network functions over the past several years, reaching its goal of 75% virtualization at the end of last year. Verizon, though it has not been quite as public about it as AT&T, also made a major push to virtualize over the past few years and last August, even announced what it said was the first end-to-end — meaning from the core of the network to the far edge of the network — fully virtualized 5G data session. Virtualization itself continues to evolve, both in terms of further disaggregation of network elements and in the push for Open Radio Access Networks.

Multi-Access edge computing (MEC)

MEC is an integral part of delivering a user experience aligned with expectations for 5G, particularly in an industrial setting. Verizon is partnering with AWS in 10 markets currently, in order to make compute resources available that will deliver that experience and do so on a computing platform familiar to developers – Amazon Wavelength. The full impact of MEC deployment has yet to be felt, and it’s unclear just how deep the network “edge” will go (to every cell site?) – but compute will be more distributed, certainly, and that will mean a scaling- up in the number of locations where compute must be managed, as well as the questions of who manages it, how edge applications are architected and managed, and the relationship of the edge to the rest of the network.

Automation

While there is still a sizable gap between what automation could theoretically achieve and what it is actually achieving, there is a push for increased automation at all levels that are directly impacting workers.

Unprecedented demands for densification and scale

Demand for cellular connectivity continues to increase – CTIA has said that mobile usage increased 40% in the past year, while mobile network median speeds increased nearly 50%. Carriers continue to densify their networks, deploying additional fiber and sites, in order to meet that demand. They’re also working to support new bands: Since 2019, the FCC has auctioned 5,3800 megahertz of spectrum from 3.5 GHz all the way up to 47 GHz, most of it in millimeter-wave bands that require significantly higher levels of site density – and that figure doesn’t include the 100 megahertz at 3.45-3.55 that the FCC plans to auction this fall. Verizon, by far the biggest spender in the C Band auction, has made deploying the spectrum a top priority and expects to have between 7,000-8,000 sites ready to go by the end of this year, when the first tranche of C Band spectrum will be available for use, and has committed $10 billion over three years — in addition to its expected CAPEX of $17.5-$18.5 billion — for deployment.

Figuring out a post-pandemic world

Telecom networks have been a lifeline amid the global pandemic, supporting everything from telehealth to distance learning to working from home, on a massive scale. And overall, U.S. and global networks generally held up well. It remains to be seen just how many of the changes of the past year will stick, but it seems reasonable that there will be an elevated level of working and learning from home for the short-to-medium term, and possibly longer. Some tech companies, such as Twitter, have announced that they plan to permanently move to a work-from-home model.

As federal, state and local governments look for ways to stimulate the economy, they are likely to look to broadband, which generally enjoys bipartisan support. The federal government has already kicked off a $3.2 billion emergency broadband benefit program through the Federal Communications Commission to subsidize the cost of monthly broadband service during the course of the pandemic, up to $50 per month for most U.S. households and up to $75 for households on Tribal lands.

The Biden administration is also negotiating a plan for what it hopes will be a multi-trillion-dollar economic stimulus package and is expected to include large investments in 5G, rural broadband, and bolstering domestic tech and telecom sectors – and, as the coalition of industry, groups hoped, workforce training and development.

Challenges for the broadband network deployment workforce

When Leticia Latino van Splunteren, CEO of Florida-based Neptuno USA saw the workforce letter that was sent to Biden, she didn’t just see it as a request from trade groups – it was also the result of an effort to pull together different sectors who were facing many of the same workforce challenges. Latino is the chair of the Federal Communications Commission’s Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee on job skills and training opportunities. She sees some of the challenges facing the industry in microcosm on a daily basis, which helped to inform a BDAC report published last year.

“Although telecom is so predominant in our daily lives — we all hold a cell phone, we all know what telecom is — it’s amazing that our telecom jobs are not well known,” says Latino van Splunteren. “People for whatever reason, they don’t see their careers in the telecommunications industry.” She cited a NATE survey from 2020 which found that 63% of NATE members companies relied on recruiting by networking or word of mouth – and that’s a problem. “We are hiring from word of mouth – one of the most technologically advanced industries there is,” she points out. One of the solutions that the BDAC committee proposed was in order that telecom organizations and those from other industries who rely on workers with overlapping skillsets — construction and electrical systems experience, for example — should form a coalition to jointly advocate for workforce initiatives and coordinate industry efforts. That letter to President Biden was a step in that direction. “I think we need to do more of that, so I was very happy to see that done,” Latino van Splunteren says. The involvement of multiple industries also reflects a potential solution to the perception that a telecom technician is a limited career. If telecom training programs include upskilling and cross-training across multiple skillsets, Latino van Splunteren says, then they become more valuable to workers who value flexibility and the ability to work in multiple fields, and enlarge the pool of workers that multiple industries can draw from.

Network technicians who can properly and efficiently install fiber, power and radio equipment to telecommunications sites are in high demand across the country – and there simply aren’t enough of them to do all the work as fast as operators would like. In addition, efforts to bridge the digital divide through new funding for broadband can only come to fruition as fast as networks can be built. Meanwhile, broadband demand overall has only been intensified by the pandemic, even as carriers have had to find ways to reduce in-home visits and nudge customers toward self-installation and remote access to test and monitor their networks.

The report from Latino van Splunteren’s BDAC committee said last year there are around 29,000 broadband-related technicians employed in the U.S., and that number will need to increase by 20,000 in the next decade in order to accommodate broadcast repacking as well as expand universal broadband, public safety networks and 5G. Telecommunications crews “cannot keep pace with the [broadband] expansion without more skilled hands on deck,” the BDAC’s job skills working group concluded in a report published last fall.

That report relied on interviews with stakeholders across the industry to identify the challenges to expanding the telecom network workforce, as well as potential solutions to pursue. The seven challenges were:

A broadband brand “identity crisis”

Simply put, students and workers don’t know much if anything about the telecom industry and the careers it offers, how to get prepared for such jobs, or what various career trajectories in the industry looks like. “Most potential workers are not aware that there exists a broadband industry, nor do they know how to enter the relevant field in the industry,” the report said, adding, “If potential workers and students do not know what the career paths are, or how to enter the industry, there is no starting point from which to begin.”

A dearth of standardized and nationwide training programs.

There is no uniform credentialing for specific job titles, there aren’t many broadband technician training programs and the ones that do exist are highly regional and produce only a small number of graduates each year. Current broadband technicians ideally have multiple skill sets that defy typical categorizations (for example, construction skills as well as familiarity with installing power and fiber, as well as RF knowledge) for recruiting and training purposes. In addition, the report said, a “general lack of industry standardization … makes it difficult [for institutions and training programs] to develop effective curricula for specialized training” that both allows employees to advance their careers and meets the needs of employers. Other training can be so specific to services or equipment vendors that employees don’t gain a broad set of skills. While the report identifies a number of successful training programs that exist, scale remains an issue.

Challenges for the broadband network deployment workforce

Lack of awareness of, and a lack of, federal and state funding for training programs

Skilled workers are hard to find. When employers invest in training for unskilled workers, they often try to hold onto newly trained employees with service commitments, so that employee doesn’t immediately head to a competitor. But, the report said, there is “a significant lack of knowledge and unawareness by employers and training providers alike regarding historical grant vehicles and grant agencies that can assist them” and defray some of the costs of training new employees, hopefully making employers more open to taking on unskilled employees.

Lack of standardized job codes and categories, wages, and universal credentialing

In order to retain employees, employers need insights into what constitutes competitive wages and benefits and good working conditions across the industry – otherwise they may very well have employees leave for better opportunities. The report noted as an example that for a “telecommunications technician” job opening posted by three different telecom companies, the pay varied by $17 per hour, from about $21 per hour to $38 per hour. Regionalization plays a role in the variance, but better data tracking and visibility across the industry might help with both employee and employer expectations.

The work is seasonal, demand fluctuates and multiple factors limit the pool of workers

Finding potential workers who are comfortable with working at heights on telecom towers is a challenge in itself. In addition, the report says, broadband workers have to be on-call and on the road frequently, and depending on the climate and season, the demand for workers can fluctuate significantly – so jobs may be very demanding, but not necessarily steady. “Many broadband industry workers or potential workers might view the job security issue differently if alternative industry career options, and upskilling and other training programs, were available during periods when the peak demand is over,” the report notes. Requirements for a commercial driver’s license (CDL) can further limit the potential pool of workers and the fact that CDLs can’t be obtained until people are 21 years old means that it’s also difficult for workers to jump straight into broadband deployment jobs from high school or junior college.

A dwindling skilled workforce because of retirements

This is a national trend facing multiple industries as the Baby Boomers age – but the report points out the seeming contradiction that while there are not enough younger workers to fill telecom needs, it’s also the case that broadband industry workers often get laid off before retirement age. During economic downturns or slowdowns in network deployment cycles, who is most likely to be laid off? The youngest and most inexperienced workers tend to be first, then those with less experience. Companies are left with their most experienced employees, but they have reduced the pipeline of internal candidates who will have enough experience to competently fill those older workers’ shoes when they retire.

Christopher Shelton, president of the Communications Workers of America union that includes about 150,000 telecom workers, took that point even further and essentially argued before a House subcommittee earlier this year that telecom companies have shot themselves in the foot when it comes to their workforces, via layoffs and subcontracting. He called it “misinformation” that there aren’t enough skilled workers, saying instead that the problem is that telecom companies don’t want to pay sufficient wages to attract those skilled (and possibly, unionized) workers. He also cited a CWA analysis found that AT&T has used more than 700 contractors to build and maintain its network over the past four years and said that “The small contractors at the bottom of this pyramid compete largely on labor costs, squeezing their workers and cutting corners that risk safety and quality of work.” misinformation. “I know many of you have heard about alleged worker shortages in the telecommunications industry in recent months,” he told the committee. “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.” A labor shortage, Shelton said, should lead to increased wages – but he cited another study from the Economic Policy Institute which found that for some telecom workers, their wages have actually declined in real terms since the 1970s.

The Covid-19 pandemic means a “new normal” that is still being figured out — for everyone, including the telecom workforce

The pandemic has driven a shift from very low unemployment, and the accompanying recruitment challenges, to much higher unemployment and a different set of circumstances under which employers and employees are working. This affected the BDAC working group’s focus as well, in a way that tracks with the overall employment environment. “At the beginning of 2020, the Working Group focused on ways to attract fully employed individuals away from their current fields. Then, in April, the focus shifted to how to effectively recruit unemployed individuals into the field and train them quickly and effectively,” the report says. “The COVID-19 environment transformed the challenge from finding enough candidates into creating pathways to industry careers by focusing on education and training of workers including the unemployed.” But the pandemic is also creating new challenges for training and educating new telecom workers, among them budget cuts and programming reductions at academic institutions.

Network management and operations skills in a virtualized 5G world

Rakuten Mobile positions itself as a forerunner of the new software-centric mobile network paradigm, having commercially launched a cloud-native 4G/5G network and also offering its Rakuten Communications Platform to other CSPs who wish to take the same approach. That also means a different approach to the network workforce.

“The skill sets to run and manage a software network platform, in my view, needs to be a remarkably different skill set. The challenges are very, very different,” said Tareq Amin, group CTO of Rakuten Mobile. “If you come into our operation room, you’ll discover that the traditional organization structure of operations just doesn’t exist. We only hire people that have software backgrounds and capability. We have quite a [few Site reliability engineers] running and managing this network.”

In addition, he says, the differences don’t just extend to software engineering skill sets, but to mentality and culture. “If you look at traditionally what we have done in telecom, you know, we always followed standard method of procedures, various checklists. Well, these checklists maybe could have been created a decade ago and maybe today they don’t apply. These checklists today have been transformed from more documents to digitized workflows and that’s really fundamentally required a cultural awareness that writing code to address automation is a critical thing — finding every opportunity that there is manual work that is happening.

“I told my team … ‘Wouldn’t life be easier if you didn’t have to wake up at night because of outages? I want you to have balance in your life,’” Amin said. “In that context, we focus and do two things. One is the skillsets for sure. If you don’t have a software background, I think you will struggle to sustain and develop your career as the network moves into a software architecture and a software platform. So reskilling existing resources is very important and hiring the right talent and the right pipeline of skills to be able to look at today and tomorrow’s challenges in the software world is very, very different. … The second pillar is about this cultural awareness that we need to transform, we need to evolve from manual way[s] of engagement and manual methods of procedures into fully digitized workflows, fully automated.

That requires a sustained, high level of commitment within the company to new processes, he says. “You need to constantly push this energy towards automation and towards a discovery of problems and solving these problems via code rather than developing a manual method of procedure to address the issue that was discovered.”

Back in 2017, an EY telecom survey asked telecommunications CIOs and CTOs what they thought were the biggest opportunities and obstacles facing them in the next three years. Virtualization was already seen as one of the most important enablers of innovation. The two biggest barriers to telco digital transformation initiatives? Legacy IT platforms and architectures, and their workforces’ lack of skills and expertise in digital domains.

In the years since, network operators have increasingly moved to embrace software-centric, cloud-native and disaggregated networks, from the Radio Access Network to the core. They have also invested in hiring and upskilling their existing workforce to gain more of the necessary skills to navigate this network sea-change. But with as quickly as technology is changing, it’s a challenge for both individuals and organizations as a whole to keep up.

Richard Brandon, VP of marketing at cloud-native routing software company RtBrick, says that it’s important to recognize that workforce issues are a limiting factor on carriers’ ability to adopt new software-based approaches, despite the desire to do so — and not to assume that things will somehow work themselves out.

“We speak to a lot of big carriers that have an appetite for disaggregation, there’s no doubt about it,” he says. “They’re like, ‘Yeah, we get it, we see how it’s going to save us a load of money, we can see how it’s going to give us more flexibility, we can see how we can roll out whatever services without waiting for the two years for the next feature.’ So they get the case for it. And then they sort of look at it and go ‘But, we have thousands of operational staff and they know how to do what we do today, and this is different, and therein lies our challenge.’

“I think it’s really important to recognize and not just kind of sweep that under the carpet and go yeah, well, some guy in operations will sort that out for you further down the road,” he continues.

RtBrick provides routing software that, as Brandon describes it, turns bare-metal switches into a telco MPLS IP router, rather than the traditional route of buying an integrated chassis with routing software on it. “The same approach that people are looking to take for an open RAN, people are also looking to put actually into their network behind the RAN. … But I think it’s a much wider trend than just any specific part of the network,” Brandon says. “It’s the kind of thing that we as an industry have been talking around for a few years, and it’s really kind of starting to feel very tangible now.”

RTbrick’s cloud-native, full-stack Broadband Network Gateway solution recently went live in Deutsche Telekom’s broadband network. The BNG terminates broadband subscriber traffic and provides other functions such as quality of service, lawful intercept and IPTV. Hans-Joerg Kolbe, chief product owner Access 4.0 at Deutsche Telekom, said in a statement at the time that “Disaggregation represents a new era for our network.” Meanwhile, Hannes Gredler, founder and chief technology officer at Rt- Brick, was using similarly lofty language about the importance of the move toward open software-based networks. “The shift to building networks using open software, rather than proprietary systems, is probably the most important development the industry has seen since the arrival of the Internet, and this deployment is proof that cloud-native networks are ready for the mainstream,” Gredler said.

“We wanted to embrace a new cloud-native approach to building and running our network. Disaggregation allows us to independently select the best hardware and software for any job, it’s simpler to automate and it’s more flexible and open than using traditional systems,” Kolbe added.

But disaggregation also demands a very different skillset when it comes to testing, integration, and management.

“There is no way [operators] should be starting on a disaggregation project without also saying to themselves, ‘The long-term benefit here is worth us changing our skillset,’” Brandon says. Deutsche Telekom, he adds. “had definitely done that. They knew they had to sort of rip up the rulebook when it came to operational staff.” That’s not to say that many of the same networking skills and protocol knowledge aren’t needed, he says. But in a world of a limited number of network vendors, it often was sufficient to learn just those vendors’ proprietary inner workings. In a world where operators can actually do that independent selection of hardware and software that Kolbe references, Linux knowledge and workflows for cloud and cloud-based tools become a crucial expertise.

More broadly, Brandon says, when networks are purchased as an integrated system, that means vendors have done the integration for you. In a disaggregated network, there’s more responsibility for that on the folks who run the network. “There’s a little bit of an obligation of, you ought to have more integration skills than you’ve had before,” he says — and adds that the differences also extend beyond network teams, to procurement. He gives an automotive example: “We all know how to go and buy a car. Imagine the electric car industry came along and said by the way, [here’s a car] but you have to buy your batteries from somewhere else. That’s a bit like what we’re doing here. We’re going, ‘Yeah, we’ve got this great new thing, it’s really cool, it’s an electric car — but oh yeah, we don’t sell batteries. We don’t sell the engine.’ People aren’t used to buying cars that way, and they’re not used to buying networks this way.”

His advice to workers and companies? Use the network technology changes as an opportunity to learn, and recognize that it’s going to take quite a bit of work to get to where you need to be. Pick a project and give everyone involved a chance to learn along the way, individually and operationally.

“The companies that we’re engaging with successfully are saying to themselves, ‘There’s going to be some effort required. There’s going to be some pain along the way, we’re going to have to do something different but we have to recognize that with a skill set just as much as we do with the technology,’” Brandon says. Individual employees who are already good at what they do may balk at having to start over with a challenging skillset — or they can see it as a chance to differentiate themselves. Telecom companies can try to hire from cloud companies — but Brandon notes that for the size of the networks they run, cloud companies don’t actually have that many people running them. “I think this is a world where you re-train and of course you need to get an initial seed skill-set in, but there’s a lot of clever, bright young engineers out there that will pick this stuff up if they’ve got the opportunity to. And I think that’s really where these things go hand in glove,” he says. “You need to define a project, say let’s have a go at something, whether that’s open RAN or whether that’s a project in the edge but you need to say to yourself, we’re going to run some pilots, we’re going to do that and part of that pilot is, let’s address the skill-set as we go.

While both high-level and technical training or certification programs are increasingly available, “I don’t think it will ever be as simple as, ‘Go on these three training courses and then you’re fine,’” says Brandon — because the difference is about operational processes as much as specific technical knowledge. “It’s not just, do I understand now how to drive Linux? It’s, ‘What does that mean for me as a product manager?’ Which is quite different. It’s, ‘What does this mean for me if I’m provisioning engineer?’ Which is different again from perhaps being a more senior manager,” he says.

“I think this subject … is almost the elephant in the room, with what’s happening in networking at the moment,” Brandon concludes. “There’s this massive opportunity and this is probably the only barrier between us having the opportunity and realizing it, so it’s really important. And again … pick a project, have a go, whatever it is. if you’re going to keep waiting, you’re never going to get the skill set.”

How SouthEast Tech put together a telecom technician program

South Dakota’s Southeast Technical College offers one example of a comprehensive training program that has been put together as a result of conversations with partners in the industry and refined to meet both workers’ and employers’ needs.

Southeast Tech serves the southeast quadrant of South Dakota, including the Sioux Falls area where it is based.

As Dr. Benjamin Valdez, Southeast Tech’s VP of academic affairs puts it, the program began as a result of casual conversations with a local telecommunications construction firm, Vikor Teleconstruction. Todd Thorin, who is director of safety and training at Vikor (formerly Sioux Falls Tower) employer, stopped into the campus while the company was doing some work nearby — Vikor’s Sioux Falls office is less than three miles away and the company frequently does local and regional network deployments, including 5G small cells for Verizon — and started asking questions about its programs and whether the technical college might be able to provide training for telecom workers.

“The conversation went from us providing training, to Vikor and Southeast Tech partnering to deliver a training program to serve the tile construction community and its needs with the extension of 5G,” Valdez recalled. Very quickly, those conversations became part of a national conversation around meeting broadband workforce needs in a 5G world. Southeast Tech came to the attention of Senator John Thune (R-SD), who at the time was serving as chairman of the Senate subcommittee on communications, technology, and innovation and has repeatedly co-sponsored bills related to telecom workforce development, including as recently as February of this year.

Conversations with Thune led to conversations with other senators interested in supporting tech workforce development, industry groups including the National Association of Tower Erectors (NATE), and with the Federal Communications Commission, which Valdez said held several open houses on the Southeast Tech campus to discuss the expansion of 5G and the network needs of rural America.

As for Southeast Tech’s program itself, it initially launched solely to focus on providing students a path to earn the Telecommunications Tower Technician (TTT) certification that would enable them to learn how to safely climb towers and do basic installation of network equipment. The classroom portion of the certification is held at Southeast Tech (or, since the pandemic, online) and hands-on climbing and other skills are taught at Vikor’s specialized facility, by Vikor employees who are already certified and teach on evenings and weekends, Valdez said. But Valdez said that even though the program was well-received in that form and produced several graduates who immediately went to work using those the certifications, further conversations with industry showed that there was a greater need than the very safety-focused TTT1 and TTT2 certifications. The TTT1 and TTT2 programs were just a matter of weeks — but because they were certifications rather than diplomas/full academic programs, students weren’t eligible for most financial aid. That limited the program to students who could pay out of pocket, or who had been sponsored by an employer. AT&T stepped in and funded some full scholarships as well.

So Southeast Tech retooled the program, which now includes the TTT certifications focused on tower climbing, safety, and physical installation of gear, but also allows students to choose a track focused on tower construction and related skills; or electrical systems and related skills to powering the tower and the gear on it. It’s now a one-year diploma program — which allows students to apply for regular financial aid for the approximately $7,500 cost and will hopefully help the program draw more interest and participation.

“We’ve actually rewritten our entire program, to where the TTT is still the focal point, but students can then earn an actual diploma — a one-year diploma — and they can specialize in either the construction methodology and construction techniques, [or] they can specialize in the side of the electrical system,” Valdez said, adding that this makes them more broadly skilled and more valuable to their employers. In addition, Valdez said, graduates come out with not just the TTT certification but an OSHA 30 certification; they can also choose to embed emergency medical technician training from another Southeast Tech track that would allow them to get licensed as an EMT. Valdez said that Southeast Tech was told that when operating in rural areas, having someone onsite with EMT skills, who can help treat or at least stabilize someone who is injured, is a valuable resource.

“We’re trying to really meet the needs of the workforce and ensure that students have that ability to really be successful as they move into their careers and the industry,” Valdez said. “Any time you have an employee who is more well-rounded, they’re going to become more valuable to the organization and the organization can use them as a multi-faceted employee versus a one-track employee. Being able to provide that really is what our goal is.”

Plus, building in multiple skill-sets to the program, from medical response to electrical systems to construction, means that graduates have multiple potential career paths or fall-backs in an industry that can be highly seasonal or boom-and-bust depending on the network life cycle. “That’s what we really strive for, to be as creative as possible so that if something doesn’t work out, [students] have something else to fall back on,” Valdez added. “We’re always looking with all of our programs to build little things in so that students have multiple pathways, they’re just not locked in and that’s the end.”

There have been several challenges that Southeast Tech has navigated in trying to make the program work for both students and employers. Making the program a diploma rather than just a TTT certification was one. Finding the type of student who is well-suited to the program — and to working at height — is another.

“Students seem to be extremely interested in the program. The challenge is finding that individual that has the stamina to climb a tower and be up that high in high winds and freezing rain and snow,” Valdez said. “We’ve had a lot of students come in and when they actually tour the facility … they’ve had a lot of second thoughts, you know, ‘climbing up that high just really is not my forte.’” He said that Southeast Tech is working with Vikor and AT&T to add small-cell installation training to the program, possibly later this year or early next year — and the fact that working with small cells happens at lower heights or from bucket trucks could entice more people to the field.

Employers, he said, are “excited about what our students can do as they come out. That’s just less training that they have to do, it allows them to get them focused on their own procedures, versus the telecommunications end or climbing towers or safety,” Valdez said. “They’re already certified and ready to hit that ground running. Vikor and several other construction companies have said the graduates are going to allow them to take on more work and actually do more, because they’re not having to try and figure out how they’re going to train people. So I think on both sides it’s been received very well.”

While Southeast Tech has drawn from industry conversations and some of the few examples of similar programs — Valdez says that Southeast spoke several times with peers from Aiken Technical College in South Carolina, another one of the few academic institutions that offer a program specifically for telecom workers — the program is still evolving. He hopes that the program, when it begins enrollment again in the fall, with build on its early success as well as new lessons learned, and provide a broad range of skills to prepare both men and women to enter the telecom workforce.

“We’re kind of, you could say, building this airplane as we’re flying through the air,” Valdez said, adding that Southeast Tech hopes to continue learning and modifying the program to meet changes in the industry and building something that appeals to students. “It’s challenging in education when you’re building programs — especially like this, where it’s a new industry, a new field [that has] never really relied on higher education for a workforce.”

Discussion with Verizon’s Adam Koeppe

Reached out to Verizon’s Adam Koeppe, senior vice president of network technology and planning, to discuss how Verizon’s workforce needs are evolving. This interview was conducted via email and has been condensed and lightly edited.

How are Verizon’s workforce needs evolving as we move into a more distributed, software- centric 5G world? What are the key drivers for those changes?

The skills our Global Network and Technology professionals need have been evolving with our technology. We have been leading the industry on virtualization from the core to the edge of our network. The disaggregation and decoupling of the compute functions from the software requires that our team has the skills to remotely manage our network regardless of software provider. Whereas in the past, partnerships with vendors and familiarity with a certain type of hardware was paramount, expertise related to software-defined networking, cloud networks, and artificial intelligence have become far more important.

What skills sets or certifications are you looking for (particularly in a network management/ operations context) that perhaps weren’t as in-demand 4-5 years ago?

Cloud certifications have gained increasing importance. A combination of cloud-native and network-centric skills are of particular value in our environment. Security certifications and skills continue to be in high demand as we protect the networks. AI and ML certifications and skills are increasing in importance as we strive to increase our network’s ability to self-diagnose and self-heal. Our internal list of in-demand skills with short supply includes cloud infrastructure engineering, virtual network engineering, network software and systems integrators, machine learning data scientists, cloud-native software developers and security specialists, among others.

How are Verizon’s workforce needs evolving as we move into a more distributed, software- centric 5G world? What are the key drivers for those changes?

The skills our Global Network and Technology professionals need have been evolving with our technology. We have been leading the industry on virtualization from the core to the edge of our network. The disaggregation and decoupling of the compute functions from the software requires that our team has the skills to remotely manage our network regardless of software provider. Whereas in the past, partnerships with vendors and familiarity with a certain type of hardware was paramount, expertise related to software-defined networking, cloud networks, and artificial intelligence have become far more important.

What skills sets or certifications are you looking for (particularly in a network management/ operations context) that perhaps weren’t as in-demand 4-5 years ago?

Cloud certifications have gained increasing importance. A combination of cloud-native and network-centric skills are of particular value in our environment. Security certifications and skills continue to be in high demand as we protect the networks. AI and ML certifications and skills are increasing in importance as we strive to increase our network’s ability to self-diagnose and self-heal. Our internal list of in-demand skills with short supply includes cloud infrastructure engineering, virtual network engineering, network software and systems integrators, machine learning data scientists, cloud-native software developers and security specialists, among others.

What kind of companies are you competing with for employees? (Other CSPs, webscale companies, systems integrators, etc.?) Has that changed at all over the past few years?

Verizon is an exceptional place to work and we’re seeing candidates choose to work with the V-Team who historically would have worked at CSPs, cloud companies, etc. There is always competition for the best people and that competition continues to heighten as we modernize our network and our approach to managing the network into a more cloud-centric and software-centric approach. As we continue on our 5G journey and beyond, this is an exciting time to be a part of Verizon. Our systems are only part of the equation – our people differentiate us in the industry and we’ve been able to bring in incredible talent to work on the most exciting projects in the world.

Are there specific new titles, positions or organizational structure within Verizon that you think are indicative of the evolution of the network?

We have seen an increase in positions focused on cloud, data and artificial intelligence, and security. There is always a need for RF Engineering, and now we see this skillset paired with computer science and cloud computing to help enable solution like virtual radio access networks.

What would your advice be to current telecom workers (especially with network engineering skills) who want to keep their skills current?

My advice would be to embrace change and continuously update your skills. As technologists, we must stay current. There is a great deal of education out there in the form of courses, certifications, whitepapers, and other written material. For those already in the field, embrace opportunities to move out of your comfort zone into a role that will build upon your skills.

What would your advice be to people looking to get into the field of telecom? How can they best prepare themselves?

“Telecom” has become a melting pot for all different types of technical aptitude, so first and foremost, don’t limit yourself. A cloud-native, network-centric background and technical education is valuable for those who are interested in joining the network team. There are other ways to join and grow within the organization if someone doesn’t have that background. We have network employees who joined the company as a customer service representative, gained familiarity with the business and our network, and ultimately successfully applied for a role within Global Network and Technology.