Economy / Labor Force

Help Wanted: 5G Tower Climbers

On January 22, 2020, I was fortunate to attend a senate hearing administered by United States Senator and Chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, Roger Wicker. Wicker’s agenda of the hearing pertained to the installation of the Fifth Generation (5G) wireless communication across the U.S. The installation of this new technology is critical for the U.S., as it will improve our communication infrastructure, create faster network speeds and construct three billion jobs. However, this installation also demands 20,000 telecommunication technicians and tower climbers which our current labor market can not provide. In order for the 5G network’s benefits to prevail, our local, state and federal government needs to draw an urgency for recruitment of skilled labor through training programs, apprenticeships and an overall attitude change in our society. 

After Wicker states the agenda of the hearing, we hear from five different witnesses who are relevant to the raised issues. The first witness, Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr reveals the benefits of the 5G network. Supposedly, the 5G network will speed up the internet by 70% across the nation, reduce the digital gap by 20%, double the size of skilled workers and allow America to lead the 5G platform. However, Carr is concerned that these measures can not be carried out unless the shortage of tower climbers is addressed. Carr supports a plan that combats the deficit of skilled labor workers. He presents two solutions. The first solution calls for a nationwide implementation of training programs in community colleges for future tower climbers and cell tower technicians. The second solution involves the Department of Labor promoting apprenticeship programs, as well as the federal government providing pell grant eligibility. 

After Commissioner Carr makes his statement, the rest of the hearing adheres to positions made by telecommunication companies and associations. Jimmy Miller, the CEO of MillerCo. and Chairman of the National Association of Tower Erectors agrees with Carr’s statements. Miller adds on to Carr’s solutions by suggesting the need for technician certification programs in graduate school programs as well as enforcing on-the-job training. Lisa Youngers, CEO of Fiber Broadband Association sheds light on need for fiber deployment to support the 5G network. Harold Feld, Senior Vice President of Public Knowledge draws away from the main argument of implementing skilled programs. Rather, he reminds the senate committee and other witnesses that the programs need to be up to safety standards and adhere to local concerns. Otherwise, the investment in skilled workers will be more problematic than useful. For the last witness, the CEO of The Rural Broadband Association, Shirley Bloomfield believes the installation of a faster network in rural areas will decrease the digital gap. Despite its efforts, she is concerned of finding skilled contractors and technicians to create new cell towers in these areas. 

Following their statements were questions and opinions raised by senators witnessing the hearing. All of the senators agreed that 5G will bring economic and technological success to the U.S. Most senators also agreed on implementing programs in community colleges, establishing apprenticeship programs funded by the federal government and emphasizing recruitment at the high school level. However, Senator Ron Johnson from Wisconsin counter argued the need for federal funding. He stressed that the federal government is too busy advertising four-year degrees. Johnson’s position caught my attention since it addresses the societal pressure of going to college. 

Many of us, including myself can relate to this issue. All throughout high school, the school administration stressed the SATs or ACTs, college applications, and scholarships for college. It is quite ironic that the value of college degrees have diminished. This irony’s cause is generated from the common trend of students lacking preparation after college. As Johnson mentioned, employers realized this trend and are demanding skilled labor and certifications rather than degrees. 

A resolution for the labor shortage is to make “hard work cool again,” as cleverly stated by Jimmy Miller. Our society’s perspective on trade school, apprenticeships and hard labor needs to change. Trade school and labor is unfortunately seen as a second choice. However, this should not be the case. College is not for everyone and it is simply a waste of time for those who could be applying their skills in high paying jobs.

But the real question, is how will we make “hard work cool again?” In fact, there is no simple answer. Training programs and apprenticeships will be competing with the idolized world of a “college experience.” Many kids growing up want to fulfill their parent’s legacy of going to a state school, attend college football games, join a fraternity or sorority and generally want to gain independence. This issue is very complex, as it brings up other matters concerning college accreditation and the economic priorities of the federal government, but that subject enters a whole new world of discussion. In the mean time and for starters, our government should stress the need for skilled labor in high schools, or else our country will continue on the gradual decline of labor in our workforce.