Connecting state and local government leaders
COMMENTARY | States urgently need to identify and build robust workforces now or risk being left behind.
As the nation embarks on closing the digital divide utilizing more than $40 billion in federally funded broadband programs, states face several challenges in connecting underserved and unserved populations with high-speed internet.
These challenges span from creating environments where internet service providers (ISPs) can successfully execute their plans, to the disbursement of federal funds in line with complex requirements, to performing outreach, designing tools to empower residents, and most notably, finding enough workers to build new or upgraded broadband infrastructure. States urgently need to identify and assemble robust statewide workforces now or risk being left behind.
Even prior to the 2021 federal infrastructure law , numerous industry associations estimated a demand for 850,000 new broadband jobs through 2025. This projection has only increased with the creation of several federal programs. Most notably, the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program will significantly increase personnel demand, rendering the current national broadband workforce insufficient.
The challenges of developing a national broadband workforce are well known and have been documented in several reports from the Federal Communications Commission and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. They include a lack of consistency and standardization across job titles and descriptions, training programs, and career pathways.
We’ve outlined an approach that states can take today to start assessing, developing and strengthening the broadband workforce.
Define the Scope of the Challenge
The first step for states is to define the scale and scope of the problem. What is the gap between the anticipated workforce demand and the supply of qualified workers? States can address this question by working with ISPs, educational institutions and other training providers, as well as by tapping existing employment data. This will take considerable effort and focus, so state broadband offices should start working now with their workforce agencies to analyze data and verify needs with ISPs.
Co-create Solutions for Developing More Workers
Tools are now available to enable states to analyze what skills exist in the workforce and to identify workers with those relevant skills. For instance, states can extrapolate and estimate existing skills within their labor force from unemployment claims to focus training where it is needed most and design impactful recruiting strategies that steer workers towards broadband-related career paths.
Using data already available, states can begin to design effective strategies to help overcome workforce challenges in short order. Below, we’ve described three facets of workforce development, including training workers, recruiting workers and funding for such programs.
Training: In collaboration with ISPs, unions, educational institutions and other training providers, states can better help define what skills are required for what roles. State and industry partners can then develop pathways for creating and building a pool of qualified workers through apprenticeships, work-based learning and other forms of training.
States, ISPs and training providers should also seek to leverage services, such asstipends, child care and housing, for those workers enrolling in training programs. State broadband offices and workforce or economic development agencies can work together to optimize apprenticeship programs and seek out available federal support.
Recruiting: States and ISPs also must define how they are recruiting talent and where from. They can deploy strategies that reach deeper and more inclusively into local communities. For example, states might build recruiting networks reaching faith-based organizations and community organizations. As part of the workforce strategies proposed in the BEAD five-year action plan, there is an opportunity to set workforce diversity and inclusion goals to help focus strategies and manage performance against those goals.
Funding: States are allowed to use a portion of their BEAD funds for workforce development, clearly specified in the federal notice of funding opportunity accompanying the program. They may be able to utilize other Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act programs available more broadly to support training of unemployed workers. Additionally, states can use State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds for job training and worker assistance and Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act funding to support labor-management partnerships.
Build the Worker-Trainer-Employer Network
States will be held accountable for the success of broadband programs and must take an active role in developing a workforce. They can help build collaborative worker-employer networks. There are a variety of approaches to consider:
Enable workforce transparency: Share supply-side dashboards with ISPs to help them design training programs and recruiting strategies.
Lead a broadband workforce task force: Enhance collaboration among ISPs, labor unions, local governments, educational institutions, training providers, and other stakeholders by facilitating the development and sharing of training and recruitment best practices. States can help drive performance management by setting workforce development goals, tracking progress and adjusting strategies as necessary.
Convene, fund, and operate regional partnerships: Either alone or in partnership with bordering states, develop initiatives that connect those looking for a career change to local educational institutions or training providers that, because of close work with an ISP, can facilitate employment upon program completion.
Some states are leading the way and taking on this responsibility by piloting certification programs at community colleges and/or working with employers on credentialing and training programs. All states currently face a major opportunity and challenge to design full-scale solutions to meet BEAD timelines and deliver high-speed internet to all residents. If states don’t act now, they risk expansion of the digital divide.
Scott Jensen is CEO of Research Improving People’s Lives, and Kelly Rogers and Kate Finnerty work for Accenture’s public sector practice in North America.