Next-generation 5G wireless technology promises to help wireless companies deal with the insatiable appetite for data across their networks. The new technology evokes heady projections—network speeds up to 100 times faster than 4G, and, according to Accenture, $500 billion in economic growth and 3 million new jobs—but the reality isn’t as clear.
In the U.S., carriers have begun rolling out 5G networks, but those speed and economic benefits aren’t coming as fast as carriers or customers want. A big reason why? A lack of skilled technicians to install the necessary infrastructure, including 5G towers packed with cutting-edge technology that gives 5G its speed boost.
Todd Schlekeway, executive director of the National Association of Tower Erectors, put it bluntly at a recent industry conference: “We need more workers.”
A lot more workers, it turns out.
Smaller Towers, Faster Speeds, Massive Service Undertaking
5G towers employ extremely high radio frequencies able to support a huge capacity for fast data. Because the frequencies of those radio waves are smaller, the physical antennas that transmit them are shorter, too. New 5G antennas will be much more compact than existing 4G “microcell” towers—in fact, they’ll be roughly the size of a pizza box. Because they’re smaller, they can be installed in a few hours. In big cities and areas with high traffic demands, the compact 5G towers can be attached to existing infrastructure like light poles, street lights, and building rooftops.
The problem isn’t rooted in complexity, but rather scale. According to CTIA, a U.S. wireless trade association, the industry will need to deploy more than 800,000 5G towers in the U.S. during the next 20 years. That, of course, is in addition to the wired fiber or wireless microwave the carriers will need to install to provide the backhaul connections that are needed to carry data between the cell towers and nearby switching centers. And that will require tower climbers, or “tower dogs,” who have specialized skills. The FCC estimates that an additional 20,000 technicians will be needed across the country.
But finding qualified tower dogs is a daunting challenge. In recent years, employers—ranging from the major wireless carriers to the small businesses and independent contractors charged with building the infrastructure needed to deploy 5G—have not been able to find enough people interested in and willing to perform heavy construction work hundreds of feet in the air, a skill that takes years to acquire and hone.
“I’ve traveled a lot around the country in about a year and a half on this job,” FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr recently told The Federal News Network. “And everywhere I go… the tower crews that I spend time with say that they need a lot more people. They effectively need to double their workforce.”
Government agencies and industry groups have responded with potential solutions to the talent crisis. A new House bill introduced in March, Resolution 1848, would authorize annual FCC grants of $20 million for three years to fund the “establishment or expansion of job training programs for communications tower service, construction, and maintenance.”
And a partnership between the Wireless Infrastructure Association (WIA) and the Department of Labor resulted in the Telecommunications Industry Registered Program, or TIRAP, an apprenticeship program for tower technicians that provides on-the-job technical training in skills that include basic rigging, tower structure installation, and operation of trucks and other equipment. The program is now available to qualified employers interested in sponsoring an apprenticeship program that meets TIRAP requirements. Eligible employers can apply to receive federal funds to support the cost of the program. “We’re getting a lot of interest in the program from employers, many of which are small businesses,” says Grant Sieffert, WIA’s vice president of workforce development. “Unfortunately, there is a lot of paperwork involved, which takes time for independent contractors and small businesses to complete. Our director of apprenticeship is here to help.”
TIRAP was designed to support a long-term career path beyond entry-level tower climbers, Sieffert says. “When building the curriculum, it was important for us to support trainees as they move along their career paths, from program manager to construction project manager to site acquisition manager and survey analyst,” he says. “We want to keep them in the industry because their knowledge base will be valuable.”
Hiring companies are also developing robust training programs to support their 5G installation projects. For example, Ericsson recently announced a training facility in Texas for tower climbers and field service staff. And, because 5G represents an opportunity for service men and women to apply many of the skills they learned during their military service, Nokia subsidiary SAC Wireless is actively recruiting military veterans to join crews working on the buildout of its 5G infrastructure.
Lasting Career Opportunities for People With the Right Skill Mix
While networks are expected to provide nationwide 5G coverage by 2020, the advanced physical and technical capabilities that tower technicians will have developed will remain relevant for years to come. In fact, in the future, today’s tower climbers will be in demand as much for their network optimization skills as for their climbing prowess.
“There’s a lot involved in these new occupations—from building the towers and connecting them to antennas to survey siting and instrumentation testing,” Seiffert says. “There’s lots of analysis and computation involved in building out the physical infrastructure. That’s why these are not blue-collar jobs, they’re grey-collar opportunities that will be in high demand, long after the 5G rollout is complete.”
And competition is going to be fierce. “Companies are constantly looking for qualified people,” Seiffert says, referring to the talent crisis in service-adjacent industries. “They’re offering 401Ks, health insurance, and signing bonuses to come on to their crews.” Utilities, too, are facing a labor shortage, so both utilities and wireless companies are competing for the same skill sets to power a 5G cell site.