CWA eyes launch of a nationwide fiber apprenticeship program

The Communications Workers of America (CWA) union is pouring $5.8 million in federal funding into a revamped fiber apprenticeship program in California in hopes that a pilot in the state will provide a model that can replicated across the country. The move is part of the union’s effort to further organize the telecom workforce at a critical moment for the industry.

Frank Arce, CWA District 9 Vice President, told Fierce CWA has long had a fiber apprenticeship program in northern California but noted that until now that course focused specifically on inside wiring and low voltage wiring. With the $5.8 million grant it was awarded by the U.S. Department of Labor Apprenticeship Building America program, Arce said CWA will expand both the breadth of the course and the number of locations where it is offered.

The revamped apprenticeship program will cover everything from central office operations to equipment, Arce said. It will initially be available in the San Jose area through a partnership with the Chabot-Las Positas Community College District. But Arce said CWA is also planning to offer the program through three additional locations the Fresno and Los Angeles areas. It is specifically targeting underprivileged neighborhoods with the goal of giving folks with limited options the opportunity “to get some honest work and learn an honest trade.”

According to Arce, the industry standard pay for splicers and line workers employed by large operators with union contracts ranges from $40 to $44 per hour in California and Nevada. He added it’s not unusual for workers in the field to clear a six figure salary.

CWA is eventually looking to replicate the California program nationwide. “Right now, we’re the test grounds with the initiative out here,” Arce said. “The whole idea is to set the trend. And that’s the goal, to have it duplicated across the country.”

The union’s announcement comes as the telecom industry scrambles to avoid an expected shortage of skilled workers needed to deploy networks across the country. The problem is expected to be exacerbated by billions in federal funding, which officials from the Department of Commerce said will create more than 100,000 jobs.

Others, including the Fiber Broadband Association (FBA) and AT&T and Corning, have announced new fiber training programs designed to help upskill new workers. But in addition to bolstering the workforce, CWA is also looking to use its apprenticeship program to unionize it.

While workers at many large companies like AT&T, Verizon and Frontier Communications are already members of CWA or other unions, Arce noted those employed by contractors hired by these and other ISPs generally are not.

“Now with the move toward municipalization and contract labor, that field is all open,” he said. “We feel it’s prime time to organize the industry.”

In a Notice of Funding Opportunity which outlined rules for the government's $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program, the Department of Commerce noted companies which receive funding will be required to show proof non-union workers are sufficiently skilled to perform the work they're hired to do. Though some construed this as a pro-union provision, NTIA Chief Alan Davidson told Congress in June it was simply meant to ensure the thousands of jobs the funding creates are safe and well-paid.