Tower Workforce Numbers Need to Climb, NATE, Others Tell Congress

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Jimmy Miller, Chairman of the National Association of Tower Erectors (NATE) told lawmakers Wednesday the telecom industry needs to do more outreach to young people to convey the message that tower building, climbing and maintenance is a rewarding career. “We’ve got to make hard work cool again,” Miller said, speaking to members of the Senate Commerce Committee during a hearing on 5G workforce issues.

“We take our cell phone for granted. Behind the scenes every day, thousands of towers are being maintained and constructed,” explained Miller, who’s also President and Chief Executive Officer of MillerCo, Inc. Both Miller and FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr, who also testified, said the industry has about 29-thousand to 30-thousand tower climbers, and can accommodate another 20-thousand over the next 10 years.

Fiber Broadband Association President/CEO Lisa Youngers added that members find attracting and training skilled workers “is a choke point,” and some companies are turning down work “because there’s not enough personnel to run the machines.” Miller added that tower climbing jobs pay an average of between $45,000 to $75,000 a year and a worker needs at least eight months to a year of training.   

The work, Miller added, is largely hidden from the potential workforce because much of it occurs in rural areas. “We’ve got to get word out this is a real career.” Miller also said the workforce issue is one of NATE’s top legislative priorities this year.

Public Knowledge SVP Harold Feld said Congress should be vigilant to make sure workers “are not exploited to win the race for 5G,” and that the boom should not disappear when the build is over. Shirley Bloomfield, Chief Executive Officer of NTCA-the Rural Broadband Association, explained workers will still be needed to maintain wireless networks and towers.

Carr discussed efforts the FCC has made to fix workforce issues, such as his jobs initiative. It looks to community colleges and technical schools as a pipeline for 5G jobs. It’s modeled on a program developed by Aiken Technical College in Graniteville, South Carolina. The agency also convened a workforce working group under its Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee to bring together all stakeholders to see what community college and technical school programs can be expanded or begun anew.

In addition to tower climbing, other skills such as reading blueprints, designing networks and trench digging are needed, according to Youngers. Several senators, including Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT), said a good way to funnel youth into apprenticeships or other programs is to reach them in high school. He invited Miller to speak to high schools in Montana about tower climbing. “If you train kids from rural America, they might come back to work there.”

Miller said his company focuses on servicing towers and could hire “a dozen more right now.” Both Miller and Carr discussed the Department of Labor (DOL) apprenticeship program, the Telecommunications Industry Registered Apprenticeship Program or TIRAP. The Wireless Industry Infrastructure Association has been working with the DOL on this initiative, and TIRAP supports 2,085 apprenticeships with 30 different employers.

NATE gave seed money to launch the National Wireless Safety Alliance (NWSA), which provides tower technician certification. “When a student is ready, he will carry a card that says: ‘I’m safe to climb and can rescue someone,’” Miller explained.

He acknowledged working at height, and the frequent travel needed to get to sites is not for everyone. Potential workers also seek other jobs with less exposure to the elements. “Getting caught on a tower when it rains or there are temperatures like today [in the 20s in Washington, D.C.] can be a harsh environment,” Miller said.

By Leslie Stimson, Inside Towers Washington Bureau Chief

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