When the pandemic hit the world two years ago, people started working and studying at home, meeting using videoconferencing services such as Zoom and ordering everything they could online. Online data traffic grew tremendously. Miraculously, the internet survived this onslaught, which is indicative of good design.
However, there was a need for additional capacity, which has led to the expansion of the fiber optic backbones, data centers and fiber to the home services. Wireless service providers also began deploying their new 5G networks, which required expanding fiber optic networks.
All this fiber optic work requires electrical contractors and workers, of course, and they are overbooked.
Techs are busy
Recently, the Fiber Optic Association (FOA) received a call from a person at a state agency who was managing a very large fiber optic project. With only a few weeks to go before bids were due, they asked if the FOA could help publicize the request for quotation and get more contractors to bid on the job.
The FOA is also getting calls from electrical contractors looking for techs, search firms looking for candidates and even online placement services wondering where the fiber optic techs are. We tell them the techs are on the job and very busy. Electrical contracting firms are overloaded, and skilled workers are scarce.
The amount of work will only grow
And that’s just today. Soon, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will provide about $45 billion more for broadband in unserved and underserved areas. Then things are going to really get intense. Fortunately, there is some time to get ready. The money will not be available until the census of broadband coverage is updated, which will take about a year.
When it becomes available, the money will be funneled through state broadband agencies, which many states have not yet set up. They must start today to create the agencies, find and hire competent technical and management personnel and then negotiate the process of applying for funds.
If there are too few fiber optic contractors and techs today, what will it be like next year and beyond?
The opportunities are there. If an electrical contractor has not yet gotten involved in fiber optics, there is a reason to consider it now. If they are involved already, now is the time to think about staffing for growth.
Reaching out to new candidates
Part of the problem with hiring experienced fiber optic techs is that they are busy. But another problem is that many fiber techs, such as electricians, are getting older and retiring. In the past, it was easier to hire skilled fiber techs because they learned the trade at phone companies or in the military, and then they moved into lucrative jobs with contractors. That source has been drying up as telecommunication companies now outsource much of their cable plant installations, especially for wireless towers and small cells.
A possible source of new fiber techs is young people who have grown up with their screens, though if they consider tech jobs at all, it’s mainly software and gaming. Many don’t consider the idea of working in the trades as an electrician or fiber tech, and high school guidance counselors tell everyone they need to get a college degree. Some job sites are no help either when they call for a college degree, whether it makes sense or not.
I’ve had several discussions with people in the industry about recruiting high school students into the trades, but nobody seems to know how to reach them—or their high school guidance counselors. Perhaps we need the current generation of older techs to put some pressure on their kids’ schools to become more flexible in their career advice.
If we can get young people interested, there are certainly ways to train them. FOA is already helping states run fiber optic training programs at technical colleges and adding more every month. Fiber techs also learn on the job from their supervisors and co-workers.