While the desire to bring fiber broadband to more communities has never been higher, the challenge will be in having a skilled workforce that can build and support the new networks being built to serve consumers and businesses.
As North American broadband providers look to expand fiber networks to reach the unserved and underserved, the fiber broadband provider industry desperately needs skilled fiber technicians who can build these networks.
Gary Bolton, CEO of the Fiber Broadband Association, which has built the Optical Telecom Installer Certification (OpTIC Path™) fiber technician training program, said that coordinating between trade schools, community colleges and states is a potential solution to this issue.
FBA is currently working with 68 community colleges. “The challenge is coordinating the relationship with community colleges with each state,” he said. “We’re looking at this statewide model to scale up and be more coordinated.”
At this point, FBA has two of these partnerships keyed up that it plans to announce soon and five total for statewide deals.
However, Bolton quickly pointed out that there are a lot of variables to ramp up broader training programs.
“The real challenge in the industry is to identify how many people need to be trained, who they are going to work for and where they will be located,” he said.
Lining up training, deployments
A critical move that states can make is being able to line up training with ISP deployments.
The FBA has been encouraging state broadband offices to figure out how many people they have to hire and know the job codes.
“What I worry about is when we train people, we need to make sure that we’re training them in the right communities,” Bolton said. “States need to know the job codes because if they train fiber optic technicians and find out they need directional boring experts, I don’t want them to have a mismatch.”
He adds that someone could “come out of training in one state and go to another ahead of them” in rolling out fiber broadband.
By having information about the job codes, a local community college that provides training could provide the training for the jobs that an ISP needs in a particular area. “This would allow the ISPs to know where to go,” Bolton said.
Of course, the other challenge for states and ISPs is that they likely won’t move forward until they know how much money they are getting from the BEAD funding program.
“An ISP is not going to step up until they know they won a funding award,” Bolton said. “It pushes everything out in that the money will be awarded sometime in 2024, so if we wait to start training, we’ll already be behind.”
Todd Jackson, workforce development director for FBA, who spent nearly two decades working for local government agencies in Ohio, said the goal of coordinating community colleges and states is understanding the mechanics of government.
“To get these programs adopted, it needs to fit in the way that government operates,” he said. “That’s why we’re trying to model it in a way that will allow them to get this set up and deploy throughout a state.”
He added that the “question is how can we get this out there quickly because the workers are needed to help the ISPs get service out to people who need it.”
Multiple career paths
He had worked with the Medina Fiber network at Lit Communities; Jackson often saw how poor training could inhibit network build and operations.
In some cases, Lit Communities had splicing that had to be done multiple times in various areas of the networks it oversaw. A primary splicer would get pulled off to something else, and the general contractor would hire another untrained technician and the cable management was wrong.
“We needed people that knew what they were doing and why they were doing and that’s why OpTIC Path fit the need of Lit Communities because it gives them the foundation for fiber optic splicing, but also gives them an understanding of what else is available to them,” Jackson said.
While the fiber industry certainly needs more splicers and network installers, training programs like FBA’s OpTIC Path can also open a pathway for students to pursue opportunities within the broadband industry.
A participant could become a network planner or go into marketing, installation, sales, and customer service.
“Having that foundation opens up the benefits,” Jackson said. “Because OpTIC Path is modularized, any company that uses the program will have people working for them for ten years.”
Gaining credentials from the OpTIC Path program means an employer will know a new hire has the proper training and experience. “Another goal is to have credentials recognized throughout the industry, so the hiring manager knows exactly what they are getting.”
He added that an instructor can use the OpTIC Path credentials as a guideline to train in their own way. “You could hire two people with that credential, but they have two different skill sets,” Jackson said.