States and municipalities are eager to start expanding broadband access thanks to major new federal funding, but its success largely depends on whether there’s a skilled workforce to get the work done.
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act–better known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law–includes funding to upgrade roads, bridges, rails and airports, but it also aims to improve broadband, which was critical to the nation during the pandemic in maintaining education, healthcare and more. It will provide $65 billion to deploy broader broadband. But does the country have the skilled workforce to do it?
A subcommittee of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee held a hearing Tuesday on the topic. Like nearly all industries, the telecommunications field doesn’t have enough skilled workers for its current workload, never mind the work that will become available through the new law.
“We’re in a critical time in our quest to expand access to high-speed broadband internet to literally every American,” said Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-Colorado), who chairs the Employment and Workforce Safety Subcommittee. “We can’t fully achieve these goals if we do not have a skilled, well-trained workforce ready to deploy broadband across the country.”
Lawmakers and industry experts testifying on Tuesday agreed that many of these technical jobs don’t require a four-year degree, but many career and trade jobs continue to face a stigma among families who see a baccalaureate as the only postsecondary path for their children. Reaching middle and high school leaders, teachers and counselors to explain the value of these careers is crucial to the workforce, as is connecting with incumbent workers who may be looking to change careers, Hickenlooper said.
Ranking Member Mike Braun (R-Indiana) agreed that career and technical education needs to be offered on “equal footing” as academic programs that prepare students for college. He said he hopes parents are starting to see the value of programs such as apprenticeships when compared to taking on college debt to earn degrees that lead to low-paying jobs. Many of the needed telecom jobs pay $77,000 and don’t require a baccalaureate, he said.
“That’s far better than many four-year degrees pay, and you have the certainty of a job to boot,” said Braun, who added that he has introduced a bill that would permit families to use 529 education savings accounts for high-quality workforce training. He also alluded to expanding Pell Grant eligibility.
Braun asked two industry representatives at the hearing how many of their employees had a four-year college degree and how much they earn. Brent Gillum, president and CEO of LightStream in rural Buffalo, Indiana, said his company employs 25 people, seven of whom are technicians–none of them have a four-year degree. Employees can start at $40,0000 and earn up to $100,000, he said. Ron Holcomb, president and CEO of Tipmont REMC/Wintek in Linden, Indiana, said the ratio of employees with non-degree technical training to those with a baccalaureate is 10 to one. Employees start at $50,000 and can earn up to $90,000.
Under the radar
Dan Hendricks, director of the Denver Joint Electrical Apprenticeship and Western Colorado Electrical Joint Apprenticeship, said his program can offer 600 apprenticeships, yet only 360 are filled. He said K-12 has pulled away from presenting apprenticeships as an education option, which is contributing to the lack of skilled trade professionals. Families don’t even know what apprenticeships are, he said.
“Can you imagine a citizen of the United States not knowing you could get to college? It’s unthinkable. Yet I speak to people all the time who don’t know apprenticeships exist,” Hendricks said.
A couple of the speakers noted the importance of community colleges in preparing jobs in the broadband field, such as programming and systems management, network maintenance, cyber security and more. LightStream’s Gillum said he used to hire workers who graduated a technician program at a community college three hours away. But after a few years, those workers returned home. Now, his company offers scholarships to local high school students to attend the community college and come back to waiting jobs.
Nicol Turner Lee, a senior fellow in governance studies and director of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution, recommended copying an idea recently used to garner attention for workforce needs in the trucking industry. The Biden administration’s 90-Day Trucking Apprenticeship Challenge kicked off in March to expand registered apprenticeships and increase outreach to underrepresented communities, such as veterans, women, people with disabilities and people of color.
Turner Lee also wants the federal government to upgrade its labor statistics to more accurately reflect jobs and the required skills.
“Right now, we don’t have an understanding of the taxonomy of new jobs nor do we have the right occupational classifications,” she said.