An estimated 90,000 people have been laid off from some of the largest tech companies, including Meta, Twitter, Amazon, and potentially Google, as seen in recent press reports. The jobs that have been mostly impacted are white collar, primarily in sales and human resources, with new hires most affected in these industry-wide, cost-cutting measures. While some researchers have argued that big tech companies are simply responding to the winding down of COVID-19’s stay-at-home mandates or addressing the company bloat of redundancies in jobs, very little attention has been paid to the growth opportunities in another segment of the digital economy—broadband industries.
Employment opportunities to install, maintain, and troubleshoot high-speed broadband systems have gotten a boost from the federal government under the Biden administration, presenting new opportunities for workers outside of service sector industries, like retail store sales associates, product delivery drivers, and other occupations. Passed in 2021, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) is expected to create up to 200,000 jobs for broadband deployment, which will need a ready and able workforce. Among big tech workers, there likely will be a soft landing for new employment opportunities due to an existing shortage in highly technical workers, including computer scientists and engineers. While some worker shortages will be expected for the new jobs created by the IIJA, our argument is that the workforce may be more plentiful in the broadband sectors, especially since many of the occupations do not require college or advanced degrees. Broadband jobs also have the potential to be more inclusive and representative of diverse talent, including workers who have been historically marginalized, low paid, and dislocated in the labor force.
In November 2022, the White House and the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) hosted their own job fair to publicize the jobs emanating from the government’s trillion-dollar investment in the nation’s infrastructure. The primary goal of these and other efforts was to reverse the narrative that IIJA-related jobs primarily require college or other formal education. Instead, the immediate needs of these opportunities, particularly within the broadband sectors, involve the installation, maintenance, and repair of high-speed networks—not at all demanding a minimum four-year degree. In fact, the Biden administration has been clear about its intention to leverage the IIJA in the creation of high-wage, blue-collar jobs by building the economy from the bottom up and middle out. However, what is not quite clear is where the specific opportunities are in the broadband sector, thus calling for a broader taxonomy of direct and indirect jobs, along with a structured pathway for professional career development for workers without college or advanced degrees and specific technical skills proficiencies.
In this blog, the authors rely upon feedback from a September 2022 focus group of academics, policymakers, and workforce development experts, as well as extensive research of available labor datasets to offer some perspective on how to effectively engage diverse and under-represented talent in the emerging broadband economy. This blog is the first of two and primarily touches on the types of jobs and skills needed to fill out the vast opportunities fueled by recent government investments, particularly if the aim is to engage even the lowest-skilled worker in the new digital economy.
Broadband allows users to access information via the internet using one of several high-speed transmission technologies, which is particularly significant today, as getting online has become more of a necessity instead of a luxury. To date, insufficient and underwhelming data exists on the workforce opportunities within the broadband industry, including in areas like wireline, wireless, fiber, satellite, and other telecommunications services. To recruit and retain high-quality and skilled employees, workers need to know what and where the opportunities are. Currently, the DOL does not recognize any specific broadband “job codes.” State and regional workforce development organizations also have not classified broadband industry jobs as high skill or high wage, even though such jobs can significantly increase earning potential through certification and training programs.
Without the appropriate occupational classification of such industries in an expanding broadband labor market, it is nearly impossible to measure worker value, earnings potential, and skills acquisition in these occupations, and it is challenging to develop career pathways and related learning curricula to ease transitions into these roles. Further, despite the shortage of highly skilled, technical workers in areas that include cybersecurity, data science, and other computing-heavy jobs, the jobs created by the IIJA are not reliant on strict technical and educational credentialling. Instead, these jobs tend to be more task oriented, requiring more experiential and “on the job” immersion for workers, which can increase the engagement and improve the quality of employment for diverse and under-represented talent, especially workers who have been historically marginalized in the labor force.
Disadvantaged by the lack of available data to accurately project the range and scope of broadband jobs, the authors attempted to create a broad taxonomy of similarly aligned occupations that were mentioned during the September 2022 focus group, particularly construction, installation, machinery, customer service, and cloud support. Table 1 provides some of the preliminary functional descriptions from each of these areas, relying largely on data collected from O*Net, which is hosted by DOL’s Employment and Training Administration. It also adds in what the additive value of tech experience would be for the aligned occupations.
Table 1. Aligned Occupations, Functions, and Critical Technology Skills
Perform tasks involving physical labor at construction sites. May operate hand and power tools of all types: air hammers, earth tampers, cement mixers, small mechanical hoists, surveying and measuring equipment, and a variety of other equipment and instruments. May clean and prepare sites, dig trenches, set braces to support the sides of excavations, erect scaffolding, and clean up rubble, debris, and other waste materials. May assist other craft workers.
Computer aided design (CAD) software; project management software; etc.
Facilities management software; geographic information system; map creation software; project management software; etc.
Repair, install, adjust, or maintain industrial production and processing machinery or refinery and pipeline distribution systems. May also install, dismantle, or move machinery and heavy equipment according to plans.
Computer aided manufacturing (CAM) software; facilities management software; industrial control software; etc.
Interact with customers to provide basic or scripted information in response to routine inquiries about products and services. May handle and resolve general complaints. Excludes individuals whose duties are primarily installation, sales, repair, and technical support.
Accounting software; cloud-based data access and sharing software; customer relations management (CRM) software; data base user interface and query software; financial analysis software; helpdesk or call center software; etc.
Analyze, test, troubleshoot, and evaluate existing network systems, such as local area networks (LAN), wide area networks (WAN), cloud networks, servers, and other data communications networks. Perform network maintenance to ensure networks operate correctly with minimal interruption.
Cloud-based data access and sharing software; cloud-based management software; cloud-based protection or security software; communications server software; development environment software; network monitoring software; network operating system enhancement software; etc.
Realistically, the existing and emerging opportunities within broadband industries will require some competency in any one or combination of the above-mentioned areas. Tasks that include the construction and maintenance of high-speed broadband networks to customer support, and on- and off-site troubleshooting will be needed as the U.S. expands its critical online infrastructure. However, these areas are not intensely focused on higher education credentials and will lean more towards skills-based proficiencies that are discussed in the next section.
As shown in Table 1, occupations that include construction, installation, maintenance, customer service, and cloud support combine physical, technical, and cognitive skills, alongside problem solving, interpersonal strengths, specialized technical competencies, and project management. Further, these occupational functions can also add or reflect the desired technology skills that may not be gained from more traditional higher education.
At face value, the focus on skills-based hiring can not only widen the talent pool for the broadband workforce, but also bring in more diverse and under-represented talent who have not benefitted from these occupational spheres and have traditionally been left behind by educational institutions. In maintenance, construction, production, and transportation industries, there are already disproportionate shares of workers who already get paid high wages and do not have college degrees, especially in the more physical industries. Having a clear taxonomy of broadband occupations will widen the pool of high-wage work and expand the benefits of durable jobs to others. While some software requirements will be essential to many broadband jobs, in most instances, they still will not need highly specialized degrees. Instead, companies can develop their own training around their proprietary systems to lower the barriers to entry for lower-skilled workers.
Table 1 also should implore workforce development agencies and community-led organizations to ready diverse and under-represented talent pools around the descriptions of tasks assigned to occupational aligned professions in the absence of more robust job descriptions.
Some activities are already in motion to jumpstart employment in this sector. The Biden administration, in coordination with various private and civic sector employers, recently committed to expanding pre-apprenticeships and high-quality training programs for broadband workforce development. The White House is committed to expanding equitable pathways into good-paying jobs through collective bargaining positions. Lumen Technologies, for example, plans to invest more than $80 million annually to hire 1,000 new employees, many of them in union jobs, to support its fiber broadband expansion program and provide technical training sessions. AT&T and the Communications Workers for America (CWA) are creating a task force to design broadband apprentice programs, work with community colleges to expand career options for current employees and streamline tuition reimbursement for AT&T’s union employees. These and other examples demonstrate a good faith effort toward equitable broadband workforce development by the private sector, with some job protection for these opportunities.
Yet, the authors lend caution if the transformative broadband economy begins to resemble traditional construction, manufacturing, and other trades, which have historically carved out racial minorities and women. Given that these industries have historically provided a structured path to the middle class for many Americans, most low-wage workers struggle to move up in a labor market and are declined membership in union jobs. Women and people of color have been disproportionately affected by these trends in the trades, impacting their ability to find unionized jobs and develop within internal ranks. As President Biden has suggested that IIJA jobs be proportioned to those with limited pathways to job mobility, more discussion needs to be had on how to incentivize more openness among unions of historically marginalized groups, including women.
Despite our attempt to create a more fluid taxonomy, the skills demanded by broadband occupations will slightly differ from typical construction and manufacturing occupations, especially for cognitive-physical jobs, such as customer service and cloud support. Job seekers will need to be able to acquire and demonstrate competency in soft skills to be competitive for advancement within the broadband industry and adjacent industries made possible by the expansion of broadband, especially those that tend to be more customer facing. Likewise, employers need to ensure that applicants are evaluated on both their current and future value to the job, ensuring that the ability to learn or transfer their existing skill sets—both technical and interpersonal—are part of the framing of the ideal candidate.
In reality, most of these infrastructure jobs are going to be long-term careers in a broad variety of roles, most of which are positions where “you don’t need to wear a hard hat” to carry out employment functions. Further, the technical and social skills needed for these broadband opportunities are not necessarily taught in college. For example, general maintenance and repair workers often start out by performing applied tasks while learning from more skilled colleagues. Even the “soft skills” needed for customer service and cloud support occupations, such as communication and problem solving, can be developed outside of the classroom.
That is why a starting point to engage more diverse and under-represented talent in existing and emerging broadband jobs should center on accurate data collection and dissemination to workforce development agencies, training organizations, and employers. Without clear guidance on what to train employees for within broadband sectors, the U.S. will not meet projected goals to maximize labor opportunities here. We recommend that the White House and DOL, along with other affected state and local agencies, take these next steps to better prepare themselves for a longer debate on a more inclusive workforce and potentially gather more granular information on regional differences in employment opportunities, as well as hiring.
With the recent appropriation of landmark funding for broadband deployment, the DOL and industry partners in the broadband sector should consider working together to clarify the existing and emerging employment opportunities in broadband industries, particularly for diverse and under-represented talent without college or advanced degrees who desire to move up in the labor market. Starting with more accurate data around what these jobs do is a first step, followed by more discussion on how to create traditional and alternative paths to technical and soft skills proficiencies. At this opportune time when job creation is in full swing, the creation of a more inclusive workforce must be prioritized in current and future broadband infrastructure spending.
AT&T, Meta, Google, and Amazon are general, unrestricted donors to the Brookings Institution. The findings, interpretations and conclusions in this piece are solely those of the authors and not influenced by any donation. The authors also acknowledge the research support of Jack Malamud and the constructive comments of Annelies Goger from the Brookings Metro program.