The current move from 3G to LTE-based networks has again placed a premium on jobs across the mobile space. And, unlike the 3G evolution that in many cases was just a simple upgrade from 2G, LTE networks in many cases require more extensive build outs.
This demand has some fearing a potential shortfall in trained employees able to keep up with the aggressive deployment schedule wireless carriers have laid out for their LTE networks. One sector that is looking at a potential shortfall is in the tower business, and more specifically in the actual people on the ground, or air, installing the equipment.
“All of the eight largest network operators have either commenced or are getting ready to commence major LTE upgrades,” explained Dan Hays, U.S. wireless advisory leader at PricewaterhouseCoopers. “That simultaneous surge in demand for hands on installation services is stressing the independent firms that typically receive subcontracts for the hands on work of installing network equipment.”
Infrastructure vendors don’t seem yet concerned by the issue, with some noting recent advances in LTE equipment has actually taken a lot of the workload out of network deployments.
Matt Jones, head of care for North America at Nokia Siemens Networks, noted that one aspect of LTE that is helping counter any employment shortfalls is that equipment is much smaller than previous generations, with plug-and-play capabilities embedded to help ease installations.
“Not to downplay the work involved, but the newer equipment is much easier to plug and play, it’s more modular,” Jones explained.
In addition to the plug-and-play nature of new equipment, Jones cited the increasing use of self-optimized networks in easing the challenges of setting up complex wireless networks.
Hays added that while there might not be widespread concern yet, as these deployments ramp up, the quality of qualified crews and experienced resources to handle the work load should be a major concern.
“Equipment manufacturers have been able to scale production as needed for subsequent generations of network technology, but the hands on work done by smaller engineering companies comes in waves,” Hays noted. “We are now in a wave of network deployments that has not been seen in five to seven years.”
While NSN is not expecting a shortfall for installation, the company is challenged to find employees with the technical requirements to churn out the vast quantities of network equipment needed to power and support mobile broadband networks.
“We are struggling and find it a challenge to find high technology LTE radio skill sets and system integration skill sets.” Jones explained. “It’s not so much a volume issue, but more of a technology issue. If I take a large deployment like T-Mobile USA, we have to make sure it’s up to speed and optimized. There is continued maintenance of that equipment. That requires a very deep … not [research and development] … but a tier-two and tier-three skill set in house to support our customers. We are actively engaged in development in getting people up to speed.”
This potential shortfall has many concerned that non-qualified workers may be used to fill in the positions, which could lead to an increase in accidents.
Jim Coleman, chairman of the National Association of Tower Erectors and president of Southern Broadcast Services, noted the safety aspect of unqualified workers being used to keep up with the pace of deployment has many concerned. Coleman extrapolated that with approximately 10,000 qualified elevated workers currently spread across the country that would result in 2,500 crews of four workers trying to upgrade the more than 300,000 tower sites across the United States.
“With an average of three to five days to complete a project, it would take two years to do the work the carriers want to have done in half a year,” Coleman said. “I think there will be a need for new workers.”
Coleman explained that the challenge for NATE and the industry is to make sure that those workers are qualified and trained properly so as to avoid accidents.
“Deadlines are getting worked down the chain and the quality of work can’t be good if workers are not skilled,” Coleman said. “Carriers are doing what they think is the appropriate thing in hiring more general contractors, but on the workforce side we can’t keep up. We can’t create engineers that can handle the work. This is something we are working on each waking minute.”
Coleman added that the challenge for tower companies is that the job is tough. Workers are outside working in the elements that can increase the dangers and most that think they would like to work in the industry quickly find the job is just too much.
“If I hire 10 people I am really fortunate if one or two stick around all the way through training and get them into the field,” Coleman explained. “It’s difficult work. It’s hot, its cold, it’s tough.”
This topic was brought to the forefront recently following a report by Frontline looking at cell tower workers.
This is not a new story as RCR Wireless News looked at this issue in 2008 prior to the current LTE network boom.
Coleman noted that NATE is working aggressively to entice tower firms and contractors to adhere to a rigid set of training protocols designed to minimize the risks associated with tower workers. Some of those guidelines include the elimination of unskilled workers on tower sites; the need to improve existing workforce training and standardize those processes; the elimination of unworkable deadlines; and the encouragement of enforcement of multi-worker worksites that would lead to more accountability across the industry.
“We need to look at standardizing the process of training, but it’s not going fast enough for me,” Coleman added. “I really think expectations were that there would be more participating from those that have signed on for the NATE initiative. We need to make sure they stick with putting safety first. We have some in place, but more needs to be done.”
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