The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 allocated more than $42.45 billion for the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program, which prioritizes expanded internet access to un- and underserved locations. For eligible entities to secure funding, their application must include a detailed workforce development plan.
To guide prospective BEAD recipients, America Achieves and Rural Innovation Strategies, Inc. (RISI) partnered to create a broadband workforce report and playbook. The report recommends six steps applicants should take to meet existing requirements for expanding the broadband workforce:
- Appoint staff and develop a strategic plan
- Collaborate with employers and other stakeholders
- Collect and analyze workforce data
- Identify additional funding sources
- Build and scale training programs with measurable job outcomes
- Recruit and grow a skilled, diverse workforce
Beyond these six practical steps, the report also offers four key takeaways for potential BEAD applicants as they prepare to realize the goals of high-speed internet access for all and the closing of the digital divide:
1. A steep and sudden increase in funds means a steep and sudden increase in the broadband workforce is needed.
Incoming funds cannot be used and broadband cannot be deployed without the solid foundation of a skilled and credentialed workforce to roll it out. A workforce of the size necessary to utilize the incoming investments does not currently exist. Many, if not all, states and territories will need to increase the size of their broadband workforce to meet these needs.
2. To prevent problems later, workforce development needs to begin now.
Per the BEAD program requirements, the broadband network must be deployed and start service less than four years after receiving funds, so it’s critical to create and expand the workforce now by reengaging workers who left the field, and by raising awareness of broadband careers.
Workers will need to be “job ready” with the necessary skills, credentials, and certifications identified by employers in their area. Intermediaries such as community colleges, vocational schools, equity organizations, apprenticeships, and workforce training centers will be valuable partners in this endeavor. The BEAD program designates funding specifically for this training, but other funding sources could be secured by working with state legislatures and governors’ offices.
An insufficiently prepared workforce will lead to deployment bottlenecks, delayed timelines, and plans that do not come to fruition at all. If applicants fail to execute their plans, the Department of Commerce can reallocate their funds to a different BEAD recipient.
3. The broadband workforce needs to be more diverse.
Any workforce plan should identify gaps in the current workforce and barriers to employment in the field. There is significant overlap between those who are experiencing the digital divide, those who are un- and underemployed, and available job opportunities. Broadband workers are typically white males between the ages of 25 and 54. However, people of color, indigenous Americans, rural communities, and low-income workers face the most barriers to broadband access.
In addition, people of color, women, young workers, and rural communities experience greater employment issues. Targeted recruitment can help diversify the workforce, especially in regions where broadband access is needed.
To help alleviate barriers, employers can establish hiring goals for historically underrepresented populations, revamp HR policies, ensure scholarship opportunities are easily accessible, and consider wraparound services (e.g., child care benefits, transportation, etc.).
4. The workforce development scope should look to the future.
Workforce development strategic plans should include hiring needs for current BEAD program investments and timelines and project the future needs of states and territories to achieve the goal of universal broadband implementation.
BEAD program information covers physical construction and installation of infrastructure, but eligible recipients also need to consider operation, administration, repair and maintenance, sales, cybersecurity, and upgrades. Retirement trends and turnover will also impact future workforce needs. Since technology will continually evolve, ongoing education will be an integral aspect of workers’ careers.
Reach out to RISI with any questions, feedback, examples of best and promising practices, and information about other needs in the field for inclusion in a second edition of the workforce report. You can also sign up to receive the newsletter of our collaborating organization, the Center on Rural Innovation.