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US policymakers tackle 5G workforce shortage

As the U.S. races to deliver next-generation 5G service, policymakers in Washington, D.C., are grappling with how best to confront the shortage of workers that could hamper the build-out of these new networks.

During a Jan. 22 Senate committee hearing, Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., noted that tens of thousands more U.S. technicians and tower climbers will be needed if operators are to deploy the fiber, the small radio equipment and antennas needed to support the next generation of communications networks.

"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," Wicker said.

5G mobility service promises to provide increased bandwidth and more opportunities for connectivity, enabling the new era of the internet of things in which billions of devices in homes and across cities will be connected at all times. When fully implemented, 5G will offer download speeds many times faster than 4G LTE networks and significantly lower latency times. Latency is the amount of time it takes to send a message from the device to the network and get a response.

Representatives from across the telecommunications industry told the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation that workforce development initiatives within government and the private sector should be expanded upon to address 5G infrastructure personnel challenges.

Federal Communications Commission Commissioner Brendan Carr noted that while some companies are "tackling the worker shortage head-on by expanding their in-house training opportunities," this can be expensive — especially for smaller companies.

One tower company has reported that they spend about $12,000 per person on training in the first six months of employment, he said. In light of that, Carr said the federal government can be an important partner, specifically through an existing apprenticeship program for tower technicians at the U.S. Department of Labor.

He also pointed out that the FCC has a 5G jobs initiative, which aims to expand community college and technical school programs that train prospective workers.

Shirley Bloomfield — CEO of NTCA - The Rural Broadband Association, a trade group representing nearly 850 independent and community-based telecommunications companies — testified in prepared testimony that "school curricula that evolved to meet the needs of the Industrial Revolution must evolve again to meet the demands of the tech and communications revolution."

Bloomfield also believes developing internship and apprenticeship programs that offer academic credit could be a helpful solution, particularly in areas where it is not already an option.

Outreach to underrepresented communities could be another solution to the workforce gap, according to Harold Feld, senior vice president of public interest group Public Knowledge.

"I would say that there are a large number of tribal governments which would be interested in workforce development programs and these tribal governments should be seen as partners," he said.

Additionally, Feld said outreach should be directed to "youth-oriented organizations," particularly those that work with women or traditionally disadvantaged communities.