Biden aims to train more broadband workers to fend off labor crunch

The U.S. president sought to give the telecommunications talent pool a boost, launching a new workforce development initiative aimed at bringing together employers, training providers and federal funding to help meet demand for skilled infrastructure workers.

President Joe Biden’s new Talent Pipeline Challenge encourages employers to partner with and hire skilled workers from training providers and work together with those providers to build and scale regional training models. The program urges employers and their training partners to work with community-based organizations to include women and under-represented groups in their efforts.

In addition to addressing broadband labor needs, the challenge is aimed at broadening the talent pool for construction, electric vehicle charging infrastructure and battery manufacturing.

According to a press release from the White House, training providers may include unions, labor-management skills programs, community colleges, industry associations, philanthropic organizations and worker centers.

The initiative also calls for state and local governments to get involved by allocating federal funding from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) to job training. The White House noted the latter’s $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) program allows for grant money to be used for workforce development and actually requires grant recipients to employ a highly skilled workforce.

The release also stated $50 million is available through the Department of Labor’s Strengthening Community Colleges Training grant program. The next funding round for that program closes October 14, 2022. Furthermore, the Department of Labor is working with the Departments of Energy, Commerce and Transportation on guidance encouraging federal agencies and industry stakeholders to share labor market information and workforce development best practices and partner on infrastructure projects.

“Over the course of the summer, the Administration will collaborate with employers and other critical stakeholders to encourage action on new or existing workforce efforts,” the release states.

The notice lifts up several existing programs as examples of what it is hoping to achieve through the challenge. Among others, it pointed to the Fiber Broadband Association’s collaboration with Wilson Community College in North Carolina to pilot a new Optical Telecom Installation Certification program.

Earlier this week, the association announced a successful initial run of the program ended in May and it now plans to expand the course across North America. It stated it is working with schools and organizations in 25 states which are interested in replicating the program.

The telecom industry, and particularly the wireless segment, has been warning of impending labor shortages for several years. More recently, fixed providers have flagged labor shortages as a key challenge as they press ahead with large scale network expansion efforts.

An influx of federal funding from the IIJA as well as private investments are expected to exacerbate the situation as more players compete for finite resources. In February, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo stated broadband funding from the IIJA alone is expected to create up to 200,000 jobs.

In addition to the Fiber Broadband Association, other industry stakeholders have moved to address the problem. Notably, AT&T and Corning teamed up in April, aiming to create thousands of skilled broadband workers through a new Fiber Optic Training Program.