Congress aims for positive IMPACT on telecom workforce shortage

A trio of U.S. senators introduced new legislation that would award millions to boost minority participation in telecom job training programs, earning praise from wireless industry groups, which recently warned workforce shortages could slow 5G rollouts.

The Improving Minority Participation and Careers in Telecommunications (IMPACT) Act would create a $100 million grant pool for historically black and tribal colleges and universities, and other minority-focused institutions, to fund the creation of programs designed to prepare students for jobs building 5G and fiber infrastructure.

Emphasis was placed on the creation of courses covering network engineering and deployment, fieldwork and cybersecurity, though funding could also be used to hire or train faculty; pay for training equipment, laboratory space and field activities; recruit students; and offer scholarships.

Historically black institutions and tribal institutes would each receive 30% of the grant funds, with all participating schools required to develop plans to promote female enrollment.

Industry groups USTelecom, WISPA, WIA, INCOMPAS, NATE and NTCA – The Rural Broadband Association welcomed the bill’s introduction, with CTIA SVP of government affairs Kelly Cole noting it would “provide a vital boost to strengthen and expand the telecommunications workforce.”

It also earned a nod from Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr, who stated meeting rising demand for telecom workers would “advance our 5G leadership.”

In January, CTIA, USTelecom, NATE, WISPA, WIA, INCOMPAS, NCTA and several other industry groups sent a letter to President Joe Biden warning the country faced a shortfall of skilled labor to fuel next-generation network rollouts, and pressing for legislation to fund new educational and apprenticeship programs.

“The stakes are high,” they wrote. “Without a properly trained 5G workforce, China can use centralized authority to quickly focus labor resources to beat us to the finish line.”

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However, in testimony before Congress a month later, Communications Workers of America president Christopher Shelton urged politicians to be skeptical of claimed labor shortages, noting operators “laid off tens of thousands of my members, who are absolutely trained and ready to go anywhere they need to go” to deploy and maintain broadband infrastructure.

He concluded: “When wireless infrastructure companies and their lobbyists start talking about workforce shortages, ask them for proof.”