Workforce development is a crucial part of digital equity

April 13, 2023; New Albany, Ohio, USA; Workers lay fiber optic cable piping as the St. Rt. 161 and Rt. 62 interchange is expanded in New Albany near the new Intel chip manufacturing plant.  Mandatory Credit: Doral Chenoweth-The Columbus DispatchLEAD PHOTO 01 161 Expansion

As the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) prepares to release the first tranche of state allocations of broadband funds in 2023, one of the statutory requirements mandates workforce development as an important program outcome, especially in the rebuilding and expanding of national infrastructure. The Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program, created by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), includes a historic investment of $42.5 billion toward expanding broadband deployment throughout the U.S. The BEAD program has also implemented a number of requirements that, according to its Workforce Planning Guide, are intended to support “the development of an equity-driven telecommunications workforce that offers good jobs and opportunities to workers in America, especially for populations who have been historically underserved by public policy initiatives.”

These requirements, paired with the federal appropriations, represent steps toward President Joe Biden’s promise to create ‘good jobs’ under his administration. How the U.S. will implement those requirements is still unknown, particularly given a lack of foresight around what needs to be done to identify, train, and place workers from a variety of work experiences and educational backgrounds. Further, even in markets temporarily funded by the IIJA, these good jobs should be maintained because, in the long run, they provide long-term, transferable skills and livable wages. The pathways for labor market inclusion that they potentially create also benefit workers with limited exposure to broadband sector jobs and without college or advanced technical degrees.

The increasing demand for workers in the broadband sector

Even before the IIJA was passed, industry associations anticipated demand for new broadband sector jobs at 850,000 through 2024. The IIJA has only increased this projected demand. Last year, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo predicted that the IIJA’s $65 billion in funding for broadband alone would create between 100,000 and 200,000 new jobs. Last month, Brookings hosted a panel discussion on creating ‘good jobs’ for vulnerable workers in the broadband sector. During this discussion, panelists predicted an increase in about 70,000 construction jobs alone—50% at job sites, 40% in manufacturing, and 10% in design. The Government Accountability Office (GAO), meanwhile, believes the BEAD program alone could create 23,000 new jobs just for skilled telecom workers. And other research has suggested that the IIJA, as a whole, is expected to create almost 800,000 new jobs every year over its 10-year lifetime.

Avoiding a potential labor shortage will be essential in delivering the promises of the IIJA and more specifically the BEAD program, but meeting these labor force expectations will come with significant challenges. Although the U.S. Chamber of Commerce identifies a labor surplus in the construction industry—with more unemployed workers than open jobs—many workers in the industry are nearing retirement, raising the risk of a shortage as the IIJA continues to increase demand in the sector. The manufacturing industry, which has faced a significant labor shortage, is also aging in both physical assets and ready workers. Some data suggest that a shortage of software developers persists, even as layoffs have roiled the tech industry.

Expanding broadband deployment will clearly require more workers in a wide variety of professions and at different levels of skills and educational backgrounds. With the plethora of jobs available in broadband deployment and maintenance, including telecom workers, iron workers, skilled manufacturers, customer service agents, and even arborists, there is optimism that there is enough work for everyone who applies. But removing obstacles to the attainment and qualification for these jobs are not guaranteed, especially for workers that have been historically and traditionally disenfranchised in the labor market and workplace. In other words, more inclusive recruitment, and retention, along with robust employee protections, will yield greater value for these employees in the long-term, particularly if they are able to maintain employment in this sector.

Other challenges to expanding the workforce in emerging broadband sectors include a lack of standardized broadband job descriptions, workplace and wage protections, and representation of marginalized groups in the workforce. In a previous blog post, we outlined the deficiency of data around specific jobs in the broadband sector and the need for improved occupational taxonomies. Wage theft is a significant problem in the construction industry and the telecom retail industry, and participants in last month’s panel described how the practice of “layering”—subcontractors hiring subcontractors of their own—can make wage protection particularly challenging. Black, Latino, and other historically excluded groups are underrepresented in high-paying construction jobs—Black workers are also underrepresented in apprenticeships and construction jobs as a whole—and face barriers to entering unions in the industry. Women are equally impacted by these and other obstacles, including viable home and social infrastructure to enter demanding job sectors.

Three paths to a more inclusive broadband workforce

At this point in the IIJA’s implementation (almost seven months after its enactment), three primary paths forward for building an immediate and sustainable broadband workforce are available. The first one involves tapping into an existing supply of telecom workers who were dislocated during the pandemic. Identifying who these workers are and determining the best fits among the various occupations is of urgency. To date, these workers are disparately scattered throughout the U.S. and, if not formally connected to a union, they are also largely unknown. Moving forward, the U.S. Department of Labor and the NTIA may want to put out a direct call for workers in partnership with telecom companies to fuel the needed workforce to meet the demands for deployment.

The second path for prospective workers involves identifying individuals with similarly aligned skills in lateral occupations and engaging them in the broadband workforce. In our previous blog post, we outlined which similarly aligned occupations replicate the job functions and activities of specific, blue-collar workers. To ensure that workers currently in construction, manufacturing, cloud management, customer service, and other professions are ready and available to work, federal agencies should hanker down on a taxonomy for telecom jobs that will be crucial in the short and long term to curricula development, training methodologies, and educational expectations.

Finally, but not exhaustively, a third path involves reducing barriers to entry in the broadband workforce by developing social infrastructure and services to meet workers’ needs. Offering services such as childcare, professional development, housing, or transportation would encourage applicants who have previously been excluded from broadband jobs. Prevailing wage protections should be strengthened to combat wage theft and protect high-road employers from being undercut by low-road employers. BEAD funding should be used for full-time positions and reflect strong workplace safety standards are necessary to protect both workers and the public. Finally, building a diverse workforce must be a priority, and doing so will require more on-ramps to the workforce such as pre-apprenticeships, preparatory training, and wrap-around services.

Workforce development is also digital equity

According to Lucy Moore, Special Policy Advisor at the NTIA, “[w]orkforce development and job training in support of the infrastructure workforce is an eligible use of [BEAD] program funding,” and the BEAD Notice of Funding Opportunity directs states to prioritize applications from operators who “commit to advancing equitable workforce development and job quality objectives.” It will be the responsibility of states to elaborate on these priorities and work in close partnership with employers to ensure they are met. States and employers should set and monitor clear diversity and inclusion goals, collaborate with unions to establish best practices for training and recruitment, and strengthen their regulatory capacity to monitor and enforce workplace standards.

In addition, appropriations are available for digital equity programming as part of the IIJA, which defines as “the condition in which individuals and communities have the information technology capacity that is needed for full participation in the society and economy of the United States.”  In many respects, the three paths defined in the prior section should qualify as digital equity activities because having 21st century skills is a fundamental component of digital resiliency. Monies from the digital equity portion of the IIJA ($2.75 billion) should be allocated in this manner to support the workforce goals of critical infrastructure development.

Going forward

The billions of dollars in investment in broadband expansion and workplace development provided by the BEAD program have created an unprecedented opportunity to create full-time, high-quality ‘good jobs’—including for workers without advanced degrees—while improving diversity in the broadband workforce and closing the digital divide. Taking advantage of this opportunity will require a whole-sector approach, with state governments, employers, and unions working in concert to engage sidelined workers, develop a taxonomy of broadband jobs, and strengthen social infrastructure to reduce barriers to entry for excluded groups. If they manage to make progress here, the program will have left a valuable legacy and improved economic opportunities in America.


  • Acknowledgements and disclosures

    This research is supported by the Markle Foundation. The Markle Foundation is a donor of the Brookings Institution. The findings, interpretations, and conclusions posted in this piece are solely those of the authors and not influenced by any donation.