At DII we talk a great deal about the equipment, real estate (towers, buildings, etc.), spectrum and fiber, and trends driving deployments and deals. We have not talked much about those climbing poles and towers to mount antennas and radios or pulling fiber through conduit or doing similar work inside buildings. In looking at the most recent employment statistics, I wonder if there is a problem brewing in the digital infrastructure industry.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) Occupational Employment and Wage Statistics provides information about various job categories (management, legal, healthcare, etc.) and spans industry sectors so you can see, for example, how many Installation, Maintenance and Repair Occupations are employed in telecom versus utilities.

According to the BLS, in May 2020 there were 5.49 million people employed in the Installation job category. Within that category are the two occupational groups that I’ll highlight here:

  • Radio, cellular, and tower equipment installers and repairers: In May 2020, there were 13,500 people employed to install, repair and/or maintain radio equipment. In May 2019, there were 14,370 employed
  • Telecommunications equipment installers and repairers (excluding line installers): In May 2020, there were 195,800 people employed to install fiber, service and install cable, Internet, etc. In May 2019, there were 208,480 employed.

On these data alone, it appears that some employment was lost between 2019 and 2020, possibly due (directly/indirectly) to the pandemic.

Looking ahead to 2030 via the BLS September 2021 Employment Projections: 2020-2030, total employment in the U.S. is projected to grow from 153.5 million to 165.4 million over the 2020–30 decade, an increase of 11.9 million jobs (employment change of 7.7 percent). The BLS projection accounts for “recovery from low base-year employment for 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and its associated recession.”

Over the 2020-30 decade, employment in:

  • All installation, maintenance, and repair occupations will increase from 5.85 million in 2020 to 6.24 million in 2030, a change of 6.7 percent. This percent change is less than the growth in employment across all job categories (7.7 percent).
  • Radio, cellular installer jobs: Goes from 13,500 to 14,100; a change of 6.6 percent. In raw numbers, the projected 2030 total is nearly as high as the May 2019 total.
  • Telecom installer jobs: Goes from 195,800 to 193,500; a change of -2.2 percent, which is down still further relative to May 2019.

Here are my thoughts on what could be happening:

  • Wired broadband providers have made it relatively easy for customers to self-install their modems and Wi-Fi. Tech support is via app first, then it escalates to voice and only as a resort is a person dispatched. Fixed wireless is basically the same, with the added step of “pointing” the receiver in the right direction.
  • More tech savvy consumers: Kids these days, right?
  • In buildings / enterprises, either the IT staff is pulling cables, or they have their integrators do it.
  • Outdoor small cell deployments nosedived over the past couple years. Regardless, manufacturers have made that equipment easier and faster to deploy because installs are a huge cost – permits, stopping traffic, labor, etc. Once the equipment is mounted and pointed the right way much of the tuning and optimization, along with maintenance, etc., happens remotely.
  • For macrocells, climbing towers is similarly expensive and even more dangerous. So, the number of climbs is minimized via technology. One example is by using drone-mounted cameras to handle inspections, close-outs, etc.
  • The gradual trend toward centralized and/or cloud RAN, along with Open RAN and virtualization, the functional split talked about in 5G NR, etc., means that since a lot of the processing is centralized, non-installer employees can hot swap server blades – assuming nothing is physically wrong out in the field. And, remote diagnostics can help determine that before dispatching a crew.

BUT…. with all that said, networks still need people willing to climb towers to add/remove/replace antennas, as well as people who can splice fiber, clear downed lines, etc. While it looks like networks might not need as many installers as in the past due in part to automation, the increased demand for digital infrastructure will increase the demand for qualified personnel to do the actual install. For example, assume demand for small cells returns in a year or two. If so, people will be needed to install that equipment – if those resources are not available, that will impact the ability to deploy the cells.

The Great Resignation may also be playing a part here (it is hard to tell from the government numbers). If an installer can get a new, higher-paid job in an office or building that does not require outside work and/or the danger of tower climbing, we could expect a number of people to take the more comfortable option. The result will therefore be fewer installers available at higher cost, a scenario that would impact the economics of digital infrastructure.