AT&T, Corning tackle labor shortage with new fiber training program

Supply chain issues continue to plague the telecom industry but AT&T and Corning are already looking ahead to address the next threat to fiber rollouts in the U.S.: a shortage of skilled workers.

Jeff Luong, President of Broadband Access and Adoption Initiatives for AT&T, told Fierce workforce issues are always a concern for operators, particularly when they ramp their infrastructure spending and construction activity as AT&T is. The operator previously laid out plans to double its fiber footprint to 30 million locations by the end of 2025. But with the pandemic highlighting the importance of broadband and the government allocating billions for network expansions, AT&T is far from the only one moving on this front.

“It’s never easy to bring on people and grow the pool of resources to achieve these types of massive builds,” Luong said. “What we have here, though, is actually a compounding issue in terms of it’s not only AT&T that’s ramping the build activity but the entire industry is ramping buildouts. And it’s being done at a time where there’s labor constraints across all industries, across the entire economy.”

Corning VP of Market Development for Carrier Networks Bob Whitman added “we are concerned that even if we add the [fiber manufacturing] capacity that the labor constraint will limit the ability to reach the goals that the government has provided” for broadband deployments.

The telecom industry is expected to create nearly 850,000 jobs through 2025 as part of its broadband push. While AT&T and Corning won’t be able to solve the issue themselves, Whitman said they’re aiming to “take a big chunk out of that” and create a program that can be replicated and scaled elsewhere.

“We’re trying to make sure the ecosystem is ready and willing to build out the necessary infrastructure,” he said.

As the name implies, the pair’s new Fiber Optic Training Program will focus on equipping workers with the skills needed to complete telecom rollouts. That includes everything from network design, splicing and connectorization to field work, testing and system turn-up. The length of training required will depend on the area of expertise candidates pursue, Luong said.

Though neither Luong nor Whitman provided a concrete figure for the number of workers the pair are looking to train, Whitman said it’s in the “thousands.” He added AT&T and Corning are looking to team up with additional like-minded partners.

Last month, the Fiber Broadband Association made its own move to address the labor issue, launching its Optical Telecom Installation Certification (OpTIC) program with Wilson Community College in North Carolina. At the time, FBA VP of Research and Workforce Development Deborah Kish said it was engaged in conversations with 23 states to expand the program and eventually hopes to reach all 50.