Last summer, Alaska was allotted $2 billion for broadband deployment from a variety of sources, including the federal Broadband Equity Access and Deployment program, the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program and the Telecommunications Infrastructure program. Work on related projects won’t begin until 2025, but as with many states, planning for labor needs presents steep challenges today.
“We have so much work right now—which is fantastic—it’s a good problem to have, but it puts a lot of pressure on industry leaders to plan for the future in infrastructure-heavy states like ours,” said Melissa Caress, statewide training director for the NECA-IBEW Alaska Joint Electrical Apprenticeship and Training Trust (AJEATT). “We’re having a lot of workforce development meetings to plan for labor needed for 2025 through 2030.”
Alaska occupies two and a half times the landmass of Texas and supports significant oil production, mining, tourism and critical aspects of the nation’s military defense system. And yet, it is home to less than 735,000 people.
A national standard
AJEATT established the telecom training program decades ago, serving line and inside wire apprentices at its Anchorage and Fairbanks training centers. Currently, 102 apprentices are earning certifications in four telecom trades—telecom lineworkers, install/repair, splicers and COPBX. Telecom apprentices learn how to test, diagnose, splice, pull and blow fiber. All must climb poles and work at heights to install fiber and telecommunication infrastructure.
The Electrical Training Alliance (ETA), Bowie, Md., has taken AJEATT’s telecom training program to national levels and is making it available for use in IBEW training centers across the country.
“ETA’s stamp of approval requires national approval from the Department of Labor, so we’re tweaking the program to fit current national needs,” said Jason Iannelli, ETA’s director of outside curriculum. “Our goal is to have the curriculum up and running and available sometime in 2024.”
ETA will infuse the program with training components from its existing line training, Iannelli said. ETA also expects to pare back the 8,000 hours of combined classroom and hands-on training to expedite faster preparation of telecom apprentices.
“There are a lot of state-approved programs, but the big story here is we’re building this program to a national standard,” Iannelli said.
As with all ETA training programs, individual programs and training centers have the option of whether to use it.
“They’ll also decide things like apprentices’ wages and the apprentice-to-journeyman ratio,” he said.
Alaska’s ratio is 1 to 1.
“We know you’ll experience many of the same hazards linemen face with whether you’re pulling copper or fiber, but another jurisdiction may feel that because the apprentices are not handling live power, the ratio can include more apprentices per journeyman,” Iannelli said.
Telecom and line work
Apprentices must be trained to work safely around underground directional boring equipment and in lift trucks, maintenance holes and confined spaces.
In many instances throughout the country, Iannelli said, telecom-related work tends to be handled in phases with line journeymen and installers working separately, and time lost setting up and waiting for separate crews to finish.
“Telecom workers trained to IBEW standards will experience fewer safety issues, produce higher quality results and operate more efficiently alongside line crews,” he said.
AJEATT-trained telecom employees often work in concert on jobs with lineworkers. The NECA Alaska chapter includes inside wire and line contractors, according to Larry Bell, chapter executive manager.
“Some of our individual members even handle both inside and outside plant work,” he said.
In many instances, line crews must be flown to remote villages and locations not connected by roads.
“So it’s more cost effective and expedient to have people from the same company handling this work whenever possible," Bell said.
“Fiber is everywhere,” Iannelli said. “It connects people to the internet, it’s used in traffic signal controls, ramp metering, message boards, airport security and traffic signals, surveillance cameras in public spaces, emergency response and the smart grid. With this program, we’re preparing for the demand for IBEW-trained telecom workers everywhere.”
Header image: AJEATT telecom apprentice Tanner Matlock works with a lashing device to install fiber optic cable on utility poles. Photo courtesy of Alaska Joint Electrical Apprenticeship and Training Trust