With sky-high demand for tower crews, what can be done to strengthen America's wireless workforce?
With the broadcast repack in full swing and the race to 5G heating up, tower work is essential to getting those efforts across the finish line. Demand for tower crews is sky high—whether it's working a 50-foot cell tower or a 2,000-foot broadcast tower. And it's easy to take for granted when our cell phones and televisions work, but it's not magic or pixie dust. It's hard, often gritty, and even dangerous work that ensures America's communications services continue to work well and are upgraded as technology improves. So what efforts are underway to develop and strengthen this vital workforce, particularly when it comes to women? Evan is joined by Andy Lee of Lee Antenna and Line Service and Chairwoman of the Women of NATE (National Association of Tower Erectors) and Miranda Allen of Radio Frequency Safety International and a member of the Women of NATE Committee. (Disclaimer)
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Welcome to More than 7 Dirty Words, the official FCC podcast. I'm Evan Swarztrauber.
With the broadcast repack going on and the race to 5G, tower work is essential and demand for these services and tower crews is up. From 50-foot cell towers to 2,000-foot broadcast towers, important work needs to be done to make sure that America's communication services continue to work and improve as upgrades are made. It's really easy to take for granted when our cell phones work and our televisions work. It's not pixie dust. It's hard work, often gritty and dirty work, that gets the job done.
So what efforts are underway to develop and strengthen this vital workforce, particularly when it comes to women in telecom infrastructure? Joining me to discuss this is Andy Lee of Lee Antenna and Line Service and Chairwoman of Women of NATE. NATE is the National Association of Tower Erectors.
Andy, thanks for joining.
MS. LEE: Thanks for having me.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: And also joining is Miranda Allen of Radio Frequency Safety International and also a member of the Women of NATE Committee. Miranda, thanks for joining.
MS. ALLEN: Thanks for having us.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: So I ask this of all of my guests because telecom is not the most obvious career path: how did you get to where you are, if you wouldn't mind giving me your brief back stories in any order.
MS. LEE: My husband got into the telecom industry first as a, he started as a tower climber and worked his way up to crew leader and, in a series of unfortunate events, had a fall off of a tower within about a year and a half of being in the industry and certain mistakes were made that day that could have been easily prevented, and we decided to create our own company and do things the right way from beginning to end and have been focused on safety as the most important part of this industry ever since, 22 years later.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Wow. And you?
MS. ALLEN: Okay. I actually grew up in the industry. My father was a ham radio operator. I became a ham operator in second grade as a science fair project. I did a Morse code oscillator. So I've been involved in the industry, I left for a while and then I came back in 2005. So it wasn't ever an industry I thought I would end up in, but, because I understood it and knew it, I thought, hey, it powers everything that we do. So that's how I ended up in telecom.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: And how have you guys seen the evolution of the industry when it comes to women over the years? People might not associate telecom infrastructure work as a job that women might be interested in or where there's a large representation there, so how has that evolved over time and kind of where are things now?
MS. LEE: Well, when I first started, there were quite a few husband and wife teams, owners, co-owners of companies, tower companies that we saw out there, but the women mostly handled administrative work. Men handled the outside telecommunications work. And now you're seeing, within the last five years, more and more women in the industry: engineers, sales, administrative, tower climbers, tower owners. It is increasing at a rapid rate. We have such a need for more employees in the industry right now, and so we are reaching out to try to get more and more women to join what's a really interesting and fact-paced industry.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: And given the, you know, demand and some of the worker shortages and skills gaps, there's just a bit untapped potential, as you see it, with --
MS. LEE: There's a huge untapped potential, yes.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: -- more than half the population?
MS. LEE: Yes.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: And what are some of the challenges facing women in the telecom industry? Is it, you know, awareness? Is it discrimination, education gaps, a combination of all three?
MS. LEE: Combination of all three. We don't have necessarily the perfect setup right now for women. We're creating it as we go along. We have women in our Women of NATE who actually do all those. They're tower company owners, they climb, they basically do everything. They wear all the hats. And so we're creating it as we go along, so it's a really fascinating and interesting time to be able to join this industry because you can create something from the ground floor up.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: I know it's hard to get an exact percentage, but when we were chatting before the show you mentioned that there's been a particular growth over the past three to four years that maybe hasn't been seen in the decades past. Do you have a kind of sense of what percentage of the NATE workforce or just the tower workforce writ large is women now and what was it a few years ago?
MS. LEE: Sure. Even three or four years ago, you would see maybe one or two female tower climbers at our yearly conference, and now you're seeing handfuls, and those are just the ones that are coming to the conferences. So it's becoming an increasing numbers-wise out there. So we have to develop the training. You know, when you have a mixed force out on the field, which has traditionally always been male, now we have to create rules and facilitate the different types of things that need to be met in order to have male/female out on the road. But it's an easy fix. It's something that is made too big a deal out of as far it can't be done. It certainly can be done. And having the two perspectives out in the field I think is something that is overlooked and those companies that we know who look for female tower climbers say repeatedly how glad they are that they've gone this direction and it's added a whole new dimension to what they do.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: And a lot of industries say that having a diverse set of perspectives, whether it's tower climbing or something else, certainly is borne out in their profit margins, as well as their workplace atmosphere and all sorts of things like that.
So, Miranda, I know you're very focused on the recruitment aspect, getting young people interested. What are some of the challenges there? I mean, when you ask kids what they want to be when they grow up, they often say baseball player, firefighter, whatever.
MS. ALLEN: They don't say tower climber.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Right. And then they get told that the only way to get a job is through a four-year liberal arts degree so --
MS. ALLEN: There's a lot of opportunities. I'm on the NATE Member Services Committee, and I've been on that committee for several years, and it's something, how do we recruit members? How do we retain the members that we have? And I think that it's really important to get there first at an initial level so kids can say what do I want to be when I grow up? I want to be a tower climber, I want to be in telecom, or I want to power my cell phone.
But I also think we have to get out there in other non-traditional manners, such as, you know, workforce development programs, going through the workforce and job center placement, different groups like that, because there's opportunity to make a very good wage in our industry. People just don't realize that we exist, and they don't understand what we do.
And so if we can get to people and partner with different groups, I think there is a lot of opportunity.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Yes, and it's maybe a resources issue in the sense that you have companies and they are needing to deal with 5G, they're needing to deal with the broadcast repack. They have to recruit new members, they have to train them, and they don't necessarily have the capacity to both tackle the existing projects in front of them but also think about future pipelines.
So what sorts of partnerships are currently being struck or imagined in the future to draw on the resources of others, whether it's manufacturers of equipment or it's community colleges or it's state workforce boards? Is that part of your thinking?
MS. LEE: Yes. Something we talked about before a little bit was I would really love us to see going into high schools and talking to advisors for students who are coming in who don't know what they want to do and maybe thinking about two years or four years but not sure what that title might be and that being on a list of possibilities. You can make a very good, a very good living being a tower climber or being involved in this industry across the board if they knew it was available. So getting to perspective employees sooner, earlier, I think is the key.
MS. LEE: And then also engaging the different groups that maybe have never seen or don't even understand that it's available and possibly people that are displaced from their current positions. We do Warriors in Wireless, some of those groups where military are transitioning out of active duty into their civilian career and how do we engage them and what opportunities can we have to work with them? And so it's just creating that awareness I really think is where we're at, and we've been working on that for several years and NATE, as a whole, has been doing that, as well.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: And if this doesn't really fit into the traditional two-year college degree or four-year college degree, give the listeners a sense of what kind of numbers we're talking about when we hear about how long does it take to get your foot in the door with training? You know, how long does it take to be a fully-fledged climber that can deal with multiple projects? I mean, if it's not two years, what is it?
MS. LEE: In our experience with our company, we really look at somebody being at about a year really being available and capable of handling almost any situation out on the field. So we do a focus and we do an evaluation, you know, three or four times to see where we're at with things we haven't checked off on the list and then getting them out in the field and creating a situation, even if it's not something that we're working on a job currently, to make sure that we've checked all those things off and we've gotten that all in. So it's being very thorough with making sure that all of the checklist is checked.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: And this is obviously personal for you --
MS. LEE: Correct.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: -- because of the safety issue, so, you know, when you're dealing with teaching them how to deploy infrastructure or climb a tower, a large portion of the training and workforce development is purely safety-oriented.
MS. LEE: It is. We send our employees out for as many safety skill sets, training certificates, as there is across the board. Anything that we can get a hold of, we have every certificate in their wallet, yes.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: And if you could, you know, wave a magic wand and try to tackle some of these challenges, whether it's funding, whether it's education, I mean, what sorts of things would you like to see happen at all levels of government or in the private sector, if there are things the companies could be doing better, you know? If you were kind of in the driver seat and could just snap your fingers, what would you do?
MS. LEE: I would -- the number one thing that we see is, you know, we see other tower climbers on sites when we go out who have taken a two-hour course and think they're certified. You know, they have a certificate, they think they're certified to be a tower climber and creating unsafe situations for the next tower climbers who come up behind them. So having a standardized training which would involve an essential amount of time, and one day isn't going to cut it, two weeks isn't going to cut it, a couple of months maybe isn't going to cut it. But having a checklist where we check everything off to make sure that the person that was there before you hung something safely so that we can follow up behind and work on that item.
MS. ALLEN: And I definitely think that's something that we're working through as an industry and we want to be part of that solution. So we see it from the carriers on down to the individual contractors, and it needs to be that self-vetting and audits to make sure that they are qualified and skilled people out there in the field to keep safe. Because, ultimately, at the end of the day, we want people to go home safely. And I'm a safety professional. That is what I do. I live and breathe health and safety, and so it's very important that there is that enforcement and that self-policing as a group that we come together and we've really, I've seen a huge change in that probably over the past six or seven years since NWSA was formed and we're starting to work together to accomplish some of these goals and make our industry safer.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Tower workers are at the heart of so much innovation and communications deployment in this country. We've got internet of things on the horizon, 5G, you know, next generation TV, ATSC 3.0. I'll ask each of you the same question: what excites you most being in this industry about the next year, five, ten years of technology development in this space?
MS. LEE: Well, from a personal standpoint, having had some medical issues in the past, I would say medical applications is something that I'm most excited about, being able to coordinate information, being able to send realtime information, being able to not be redundant, the cross check will already be there. So for myself personally, I would say the medical applications over the next few years are going to be exciting.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: And the FCC is also very focused on telemedicine, so we have that in common.
MS. ALLEN: Yes. And I serve on (unintelligible) Hospital Board, as well, and so that's exciting. But I think it's just the variety and the opportunities. Things that we don't even think about at this point are going to be developed, and so it's an ever-changing industry and there's so much variety, which I think is exciting. I think it gives us a lot of choices and a lot of different directions but, with that, comes that education and that continuum of how do we train our employees to keep up with all the current changes and then what is being evolved in the future?
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: So let's say I have a hypothetical listener right now, a young woman, not necessarily sure that she wants to go into a traditional career path, not sure if she wants to go the four-year route, likes technology but maybe sees some challenges, whether it's all the things we mentioned, what's your message for her?
MS. ALLEN: You can do it. Just get a hold of Women of NATE or NATE. They can lead you in the directions of companies that are safe and that are quality and that will ensure that you have the knowledge to do your job. There's a lot of opportunity out there, and we have a lot of open positions that we need to fill. So if you're remotely interested, get on and learn about the climber video connection that we have where we have videos that kind of show you what we do, and that's all in the natehome.org home page.
MS. LEE: I would say that the possibilities are endless there. Reaching out to the NATE website and looking for, there are company openings everywhere and trying it out, I think there would be a lot of surprise in skill sets that you already have that would apply to the tower industry right now and you would fit right in with some training. So anyone can do this with the right amount of training and propensity for, you know, certain engineering or electrical/mechanical aptitudes. And a lot of these things can be taught if you have those aptitudes.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Any final thoughts for the listeners? Anything we didn't cover?
MS. ALLEN: I would just say it's a really exciting time, not only in our industry but for women in general. You know, we are getting an opportunity to have more of a voice in everything that we do every single day and this industry is, you know, as we are, you know, in the ground up with women being in it in smaller numbers, we have a chance to create our own destiny with that. And there's a very few things you can do with that right now, you know, where you can start in something and help create the model, and this is it.
MS. LEE: And as we say, we are WON, Women of Nate, and we can help each other rise, we can help our industry wise, and we can continue to build within the industry itself and continue to empower other women and bring each other in. Natehome.com is a great place to find out all about what we do and who we are, and our information for WON is there, as well.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Well, like you said, it is a very exciting time. A lot of conversations now in this country, not just in the context of tower climbing but in other industries about workforce development, having a workforce that is skilled that is ready for the 21st century jobs that are going to be needed. So I doubt this will be the last time we talk about it on the FCC podcast.
But I really appreciate you guys coming in and sharing your personal story and talking about what needs to get done for the workforce and just providing your unique perspective on these issues.
So with that, my guests have been Andy Lee of Lee Antenna and Line Service and Chairwoman of Women of NATE and Miranda Allen of Radiofrequency Safety International and a member of the Women of NATE Committee. Thank you so much for joining.
MS. LEE: Thank you for having us.
MS. ALLEN: Thanks for having us.
MR. SWARZTRAUBER: Find this podcast in the iTunes store, Google Play, or wherever you get your podcast. Please leave us a review because it will help others find the show. If you have ideas on things you'd like to hear on the podcast, feel free to reach out to me. You can find me on Twitter at evans_fcc