While touting the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) efforts to smooth the path for 5G wireless infrastructure and service deployment, FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr told the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee today that “accelerating infrastructure deployment [has] created a new challenge and opportunity.”

Witnesses at today’s committee hearing universally agreed that deploying wireless broadband infrastructure and service is essential, but that effort is hampered by a dearth of qualified workers. While some witnesses remained largely positive about the industry’s outlook, others raised serious concerns about how the United States is deploying broadband and how the country should approach the workforce issue.

Carr, unsurprisingly, was one witness who remained largely positive, saying that “Americans should be proud that we now have the world’s leading 5G platform.” But he said continued success depends on freeing up more spectrum for 5G services, and modernizing infrastructure rules.

On the workforce front, Carr said the industry “estimates that it needs to fill another 20,000 job openings for tower climbers and telecom techs to complete this country’s 5G build,” and urged expansion of Federal programs to train 5G workers. He said those unfilled positions are “good-paying jobs,” and continued, “They do not require an expensive four-year degree … they are 5G jobs that can help lift thousands of American families up into the middle class.”

Harold Feld, senior vice president at public interest group Public Knowledge, had a different take on the 5G jobs, saying, “It is important to note that because demand is cyclical, the short-term demand generated by the need to build out 5G infrastructure does not ensure long-term employment for workers.”

To address that concern, Feld said “programs designed to meet the shortage of tower workers need to look not merely to training and safety, but also to guaranteeing to tower workers a productive future after the current boom subsides. This applies not merely to tower climbers, but to other job opportunities that will follow in the wake of deployment.”

Both Jimmy Miller, chairman of the National Association of Tower Erectors, and Lisa R. Youngers, president and CEO of the Fiber Broadband Association, had a more positive view of the workforce opportunities. But both said that in order to address the worker shortage, the industry must increase training and education opportunities. To make that happen, both urged Congress to devote more Federal funds for training and education programs, including industry-led trainings and funding programs in higher education. Miller also advocated for a “workforce system of ‘Telecom Center of Excellence’ certificate-based programs strategically located around the country at community colleges and technical institutes.”

Shirley Bloomfield, CEO of NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association, further stressed the importance of educational initiatives. “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,” she testified. “These demands, however, can seem overwhelming for small school districts challenged by economies of scale that cannot support specialized instruction.”

To that end, she suggested several approaches that could mitigate the challenges. Primarily, she urged bringing together all level of stakeholders – private sector, governmental, and academic – to “identify job and educational opportunities and to assess whether local/regional educational curricula meet those needs” She also suggested developing internship and apprenticeship programs where students can earn academic credit.

While there remain ongoing concerns regarding broadband deployment writ large and the workforce shortage, the Federal government continues to make broadband a priority. Congress has advanced two bills that would improve broadband mapping accuracy, introduced legislation that would use broadband mapping to improve maternal health, and is working to make additional spectrum available for 5G wireless services.

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Kate Polit
Kate Polit
Kate Polit is MeriTalk's Assistant Copy & Production Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.