Ensuring Enough Workers to Build America’s Broadband Networks

By Amanda Bergson-Shilcock, March 17, 2024

A practical overview of workforce development options for state broadband officials

The bipartisan infrastructure bill passed by Congress in 2021 is sending more than $42 billion to states to build out high-speed internet networks via the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program. As President Biden said in his Presidential Budget Request, the installation of high-speed internet creates high-paying jobs and strengthens local economies, which leads to increased job and population growth, lower unemployment rates, and new business formation.

This unprecedented investment will require a robust array of workers to complete these ambitious projects. But unlike previous rounds of federal investment, this time there will be stiff competition for the pool of available workers – because the federal government is simultaneously investing billions of additional dollars into clean energy, semiconductor manufacturing, and related initiatives that demand workers with similar qualifications.

State broadband leaders and BEAD subgrantees can’t just rely on previous approaches to staffing up, such as hiring independent contractors or poaching talent from nearby states. There simply aren’t enough already-trained workers for employers to acquire the talent they need in the time frame they need it.

Instead, states and business leaders will need to explore creative solutions for expanding their pipeline of skilled workers, including by upskilling and reskilling individuals who are eager to qualify for these new jobs.

This document provides a short, practical overview of workforce development strategies and tactics. It is designed in a Q-and-A format for leaders who may have substantial technical expertise in broadband-related topics but not necessarily in education or workforce development.

What are some examples of what a workforce development pathway can look like?

A majority of jobs in the US economy (52 percent) require skills training past high school, but not a four-year degree. Below are some examples of the types of pathways that workers take to earn these credentials and find employment:

  • Example 1: A 16-week noncredit community college training program resulting in a portable, industry-recognized credential.
  • Example 2: A 150-hour incumbent-worker training program that helps existing workers at a given company to upskill with the additional skills required to move into a different occupation at the same employer
  • Example 3: A 12-week pre-apprenticeship via a nonprofit adult education organization, followed by a formal registered apprenticeship program at a local business in collaboration with a labor union
  • Example 4: A 6-month integrated education and training (IET) program at a nonprofit organization that enables individuals to simultaneously earn a high school equivalency credential and an industry-recognized credential for a specific occupation.
  • Example 5: A nine-month certificate or 2-year degree program offered by a community or technical college.

As these examples illustrate, state broadband leaders and BEAD subgrantees can look to a variety of partners to help them create a strong talent pipeline of workers for broadband-related job openings.

Because some occupations require shorter training periods than others, states should act now to identify the most in-demand occupations (see below) and ensure that there is sufficient capacity to prepare the skilled workforce needed in the timeframe necessary.

View an example of how Ohio is illustrating broadband workforce career pathways.

(Want to learn more about how state and federal policymakers can invest in high-quality, short-term credentials? Visit NSC’s Making College Work campaign.)

Which state agencies can help to establish or sustain education and workforce programs?

State broadband leaders and BEAD subgrantees can draw on state workforce development boards, labor departments, higher education coordinating boards, and adult education agencies as primary resources.

Not only do these agencies have staff members with expertise in designing and implementing workforce programs, but they also oversee various funding streams focused on workforce development that may be available to complement BEAD funds in supporting broadband workforce development.

  • State workforce development boards oversee each state’s Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) Title I funds, in collaboration with state labor departments, local workforce boards and American Job Centers. (The latter are branded with different names depending on the state, such as CareerSource in Florida or Workforce Solutions in Texas.) These funds can help unemployed or recently laid-off workers train for new jobs, either through Individual Training Account vouchers or cohort-based training. They can also help employers upskill or reskill incumbent workers for new roles.
  • State labor departments typically oversee a broad range of federal and state funds that can be used for workforce development programs. These can include WIOA, federal apprenticeship grants, and US Department of Labor discretionary grants, just to name a few. In some cases, they may also administer SNAP Employment and Training or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) workforce programs.[1]
  • Higher education coordinating boards typically oversee state community and technical college systems. These institutions offer both credit-bearing programs (which help workers to earn certificates or 2-year degrees) and noncredit workforce training programs (which provide shorter-term training that may be customized to a particular employer or industry’s needs).
  • Adult education agencies oversee WIOA Title II funds, which provide high school equivalency, adult basic education, and English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) classes for adults. Depending on the state, these agencies may be housed within a department of education or labor and may be connected to the K-12 system or community college system. Adult education programs are often vital on-ramps for learners to move from education to workforce training programs, as in the case of Indiana’s WorkINdiana and Next-Level Jobs programs.

Outside of government, other partners such as nonprofit community-based organizations and labor-management training partnerships can also be powerful resources in designing and implementing workforce programs.

How can states identify which broadband-related occupations to focus on?

State broadband leaders have already received an initial, state-specific workforce supply analysis from the federal NTIA. In addition, many broadband offices have contracted with consultants and/or worked with their state’s labor management information agencies to identify particular occupations that currently face or are likely to face shortages of qualified workers.

While takeaways from these analyses are reflected in many states’ BEAD Initial Proposals (Vol. II) under the Workforce Readiness section, the dynamism of today’s labor market means that ongoing analysis will be necessary to adjust to changing circumstances on the ground.

To that end, national-level analyses, such as this this recent report from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst (commissioned by National Skills Coalition and the BlueGreen Alliance) can also help shed light on in-demand roles.

Finally, local employers can be a source of valuable data about occupational needs. (See below for more on employer engagement.)


How do states find out which skills or credentials workers need for these jobs?

Once states have determined which occupations will be the focus of their workforce development efforts, it’s vital to identify which credentials are needed to become employed in those roles. State leaders can learn this information by:

  • Gathering information informally from employers themselves. To avoid bombarding employers with a plethora of requests, the most efficient way to do this is through partners who have already established relationships with businesses in the relevant sector. These include Employer Advisory Councils (a common feature of high school and postsecondary Career Technical Education programs), workforce training deans or vice presidents at community and technical colleges, and business services staff at workforce development boards or American Job Centers. Depending on the state, this may also include labor-management training partnerships or labor unions.
  • Conducting formal surveys of employers, in collaboration with economic development agencies or chambers of commerce. In some cases, this data may have already been collected as part of regularly scheduled surveys, and state officials can benefit from existing work.
  • Reviewing “Help Wanted” ads and other labor market data to better understand advertised requirements. Federal JOLTS data can give a general sense of the pace of job openings and turnovers in recent months, while the US Department of Labor’s O*Net database contains extensive information on the education and skills requirements and certifications associated with hundreds of different occupations. And many states have existing contracts with private data providers such as Lightcast that can provide the latest data on recently-posted Help Wanted ads for specific jobs or industries in their state or region.
  • Searching for information on specific credentials via Credential Finder. This website, hosted by the nonprofit Credential Engine, is a clearinghouse of information about different educational and vocational credentials – including degrees, certificates, certifications, licenses, and more. While each state has its own laws and regulations pertaining to occupational licensing, Credential Finder can be a good source of ancillary information.

Ohio has assembled a useful clearinghouse of state resources related to labor market data and other information necessary for broadband workforce partners.

What are examples of effective workforce development program components?

State leaders should prioritize investments that reflect best practices in workforce development. Select best practices are highlighted below. Broadband leaders can reach out to their workforce and education partners to learn more about these and other approaches that can help them accomplish their workforce goals.

  • Contextualized and employer-informed curricula. Workforce development and education is most effective when people learn in a real-world context, applying their new skills in ways that reflect what they will ultimately be required to do on the job. State leaders can tap into employer expertise to help ensure that training curricula reflect realistic scenarios and help workers to develop necessary skills. Programs such as this electrician training at a California adult school collaborate closely with industry and labor partners to ensure that the 540-hour curriculum prepares learners with required skills.
  • Industry-recognized, portable credentials. There are tens of thousands of different credentials available in the US. High-quality workforce development programs make sure that the credentials their participants are earning are those that hiring managers will recognize on a resume and will value as a representation of their skills. Good programs also make sure that credentials are portable – that is, that they are not specific to one employer — and remain relevant as a worker moves from job to job along a career ladder.
  • Supportive services. For many workers, barriers related to transportation, childcare, or related issues can jeopardize their ability to successfully complete a training program and enter employment. States can tackle this issue by investing in supportive services. For example, this Mississippi program used federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funds to provide childcare for women apprentices in construction jobs.
  • Work-based learning models include federally Registered Apprenticeships, so-called “small-a” apprenticeships, and pre-apprenticeships. This earn-while-you-learn approach is perfect for workers who cannot afford to quit their jobs to participate in unpaid training programs. South Carolina is a national leader in creating work-based learning opportunities through the Apprenticeship Carolina program. This initiative, housed at the state’s technical college system, streamlines the process to make it easy for employers to establish apprenticeship programs and for potential apprentices to identify and enroll in them.
  • Industry sector partnerships bring together a group of employers in a single industry, along with one or more education and workforce providers, to identify talent needs and map training pipelines. While it may seem counterintuitive for competitors to share their talent needs, in fact the sector partnership model has a track record of success across the US for more than two decades. It is a particularly valuable way to aggregate talent needs across small and mid-sized employers to create efficiencies in education and workforce programs.
  • Integrated Education and Training (IET) models allow workers to build basic skills in reading, math, or spoken English in the context of learning technical, industry-specific skills. This example of an IET program in El Paso, Texas, illustrates how an adult education program was able to contract with high school Career Technical Education teachers to work overtime in the evenings, serving adult learners. Graduates of the IET program were then able to enter into a registered apprenticeship program to work as electricians. In addition to adult education providers, IET programs can be also provided by community colleges or nonprofit organizations.

How can states create on-ramps for new workers into the broadband industry?

This is an “all hands on deck” moment for state economies. It won’t be possible to successfully complete ambitious broadband projects by limiting recruitment only to the existing pool of predominantly white, male, and older workers. Instead, states can accelerate their talent pipeline development by ensuring that there are on-ramps into broadband training opportunities for workers of all backgrounds, including those who may never have considered a career in the industry but are excited to hit the ground running.

One of the most effective ways to broaden the pool of talent is to sub-contract with community-based organizations that have longstanding, trusted relationships with underrepresented workers. This can speed up the process of recruiting and enrolling workforce training participants and ensure that qualified individuals can tap into the career advising and other services necessary to successfully persist and complete training programs. For example, in Louisiana, the Bossier Parish Community College partnered with a local correctional facility to provide fiber optic technician training for incarcerated individuals. Other training programs tap into immigrant and refugee talent, workers with disabilities, and women workers.

What data should states collect to evaluate whether training programs are working?

Collecting a short, standardized set of measurable outcomes from every training program allows states to gauge the impact of their investments and compare results across different programs and geographic regions. Commonly used measures include 1) program completion/graduation; 2) credential attainment; 3) job placement; 4) wage level; and 5) job retention.

With this information, states can identify programs that are doing especially well, such as those that are placing a high percentage of their graduates into well-paying jobs. This data can also help officials spot bottlenecks that might be hindering success — such as programs that see a high number of graduates but a sharp drop in the percentage of graduates who successfully pass a licensing exam and obtain a credential.

Data can also help states to ensure that workforce programs are successfully serving workers of all demographic backgrounds.

Note: While some training programs collect this data by surveying or individually contacting their program participants to follow up, states are increasingly using the more efficient and affordable technique of administrative data. For example, pulling (aggregated and anonymized) data from their state Unemployment Insurance Wage Record system to see what percentage of program graduates are employed and what their earnings are. Many states also use a State Longitudinal Data System (SLDS) to track education and workforce outcomes.

[1] SNAP E&T and TANF funds may instead be overseen by a state’s human services agency or by county-level human services offices.