Feeding the Fiber Frenzy – Inside Towers

At a recent UBS investor conference, AT&T COO Jeff McElfresh described the wide reach of his company’s multi-billion dollar fiber investment. “There are more or less about 10,000 neighborhoods where women and men are digging dirt, laying the fiber and installing service today across this nation,” he said. 

Men and women trained to install fiber optic equipment are finding plenty of work as telcos, ISPs, electric utilities and municipalities race to close the digital divide. Demand for fiber technicians is exploding, and in some areas the need for wireless workers appears to be moving in the opposite direction. 

“We saw this decrease in wireless demand in Q4 and concurrently our percent of requisitions in the fiber space increased,” reported Carrie Charles, co-founder and CEO of staffing specialist Broadstaff. Charles said she beefed up her fiber team going into 2023, in order to meet the anticipated demand for fiber technicians and skilled laborers. 

The fiber boom has created a seller’s market for labor, according to the Fiber Broadband Association. “Contracted crews needed to handle specific parts of an installation may have the ability to pick and choose when, where and how they work, and they may move around to various areas of the country depending on available jobs and wages,” the association explained in a recent whitepaper. 

“These are unprecedented times,” said Ron Deese, founder and CEO of TelForce Group, which now specializes in placing fiber technicians. “Verizon, AT&T, Frontier, Lumen – all are building fiber,” he said. “And you have the ILECs building fiber at an unprecedented rate.”  

TelForce Group is seeing high demand for aerial lineman, fiber splicers, and construction managers. The firm stopped placing wireless technicians several years ago, but Deese said he now gets unsolicited calls from tower climbers and others in the wireless industry who are looking for new roles on the fiber side of the business. For many of them, lack of experience is an issue. “There’s a learning curve,” Deese said, adding that too many workers equate watching fiber technicians and construction managers with actual job experience. He said the industry needs more cross training of technicians, and named MasTec as a company that is setting an example by actually training wireless professionals for the fiber business. 

Cross training will serve workers well, potentially enabling them to deploy fiber if the wireless business slows down, and be ready to climb towers when it heats up again. Tower climber shortages are a chronic problem in the wireless industry, especially when carriers are rolling out a new generation of radio technology, 

Leticia Latino-van Splunteren is CEO of Neptuno USA and former co-chair of the FCC’s Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee’s Jobs and Skills working group. She said that despite everything the industry is doing to train more tower technicians, it is still hard to find enough people. “We are making progress, but we still have a long way to go,” she said.

The FCC has also formed a Telecommunications Interagency Working Group to develop recommendations to address the workforce needs of the telecommunications industry, including the safety of that workforce. This group is set to make an initial report to Congress on January 13, 2023.

By Martha DeGrasse, Inside Towers Contributing Analyst

Veteran telecom industry editor and journalist Martha DeGrasse is an Inside Towers Contributing Analyst with features appearing monthly. DeGrasse owns Network Builder Reports and contributes regularly to several publications. She was formerly a writer and editor with RCR Wireless and a TV business news producer.

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