Here's how states are tackling the broadband workforce gap

U.S. Broadband Summit, Washington DC – Fiber deployments are ramping up, but there’s the matter of finding enough workers for the task. PwC’s Dan Hays told Fierce earlier this year the broadband labor shortage is going “to get worse before it gets better.”

So, what are states doing to mitigate the worker shortage? In some cases, they’re looking at the prison system for prospective technician hires.

Thomas Tyler, deputy director of Louisiana’s broadband office, mentioned how a community college in the northern part of Louisiana stood up a career development program for prisoners who were getting released.

He said he attended the program’s first graduation ceremony, which consisted of people from “different walks of life” who were there to learn “how to basically better their lives.”

“It was setting them up for a career in this space…this isn’t just a dead-end job,” Tyler said. “The skills they learn are transferable and they can start to grow and mature in a company.”

He added Louisiana in the past couple of years has built out broadband workforce development curriculums across community and technical colleges.

MJ Barton, Tribal and Programs Outreach Manager at the Oklahoma Broadband Office, said her state “has skill centers” in its prisons and is looking at programs “that will help lift someone else up and give them an opportunity.”

The Oklahoma State University Institute of Technology (OSUIT) has two government-funded fiber technician programs, one in Okmulgee and another in Tulsa.

“But we don’t have anything on the other side of the state,” she said. “So what we’re doing is we’ve got tribes that have taken that program” and are overseeing it in areas where the OSUIT program isn’t available.

Grain Management Managing Director Chad Crank said his firm has had “varying degrees of success” using the prison system to find workers.

“It comes along with the kind of challenges you would expect,” he said, noting the system has “a lot of good people” but it’s important “to be cognizant” of mental health issues and other factors.

As a private equity firm, Grain has invested in a range of telcos including Great Plains Communications, LightRiver, Quintillion and more.

One workforce initiative the company’s done is acquire a business called Fiber Optic Services (FOS) and it “stood up a school around that.”

“Fiber splicing is a bit of a dark art, literally kind of an apprenticeship type model,” Crank said. “So the lag effect from putting somebody in the program and actually having them stay through that program and get trained up is quite long.”

But where are the jobs?

While states are exploring all avenues to find broadband hires, ISPs have some roadblocks to hiring applicants from the prison system, according to Judson Cary, assistant attorney general for broadband at the Colorado Attorney General’s Office.

“We went to some of the ISPs and said, ‘would you hire?’ Unfortunately, we hit kind of a wall on a couple of ISPs that are big in the state,” he said. “I’m not going to name names but they kind of said ‘no, our HR system, that tick on a federal crime would probably land them without a job.’”

On a similar note, some people are graduating in-state technician programs and moving elsewhere, because jobs aren’t available in their state yet.

“What we have heard is [ISPs are] waiting for funding to come in,” Barton commented. “So they don’t want to hire and staff up if they don’t have work to do.”

And it’s not just an issue of finding the jobs, it’s also the “relative desirability” of technician jobs, Crank noted, because “it’s hard to compete” with an office or work-from-home position.

“There’s a small and shrinking segment of the population that’s willing to go out in 100-degree Florida heat…all day long but then has the technical capabilities to splice fiber,” he said.