Charter Communications chairman and CEO Tom Rutledge gave voice to one of the telecom industry’s biggest dilemmas at an industry conference Wednesday. Despite the billions of dollars the federal government is pouring into programs earmarked to create fiber networks to bring broadband to rural areas, there aren’t enough workers to build them.
“There is no labor force,” Rutledge said at the MoffettNathanson Media & Communications Summit in New York, when asked about the worker shortage. “For all the construction that hasn’t been done, there is no skilled labor force that is currently out there.”
Adding to the dilemma is that many of the areas where the build outs are taking place have small populations, meaning that workers have to be brought in, which creates logistic and transportation issues.
Rutledge added that the problem is greater for smaller operators.
“We are a big operator and we can manage through these big projects,” he said. “We’ve already invested a lot of money in new construction equipment and hired a couple of thousand people just to manage the contract process of building out these new assets.”
Still, it hasn’t been entirely smooth sailing, even a company the size of Charter.
“We have thousands of unfilled positions,” Rutledge said.
Colleges and companies throughout the country have started training programs to fill the gap. In April, AT&T and Corning launched a fiber optic training program in North Carolina and trade organizations like the Wireless Infrastructure Association and the Fiber Broadband Association have launched training and certification programs to beef up and educate the future workforce.
But training takes months and even years to fully complete. And in the meantime, the shortage continues. In 2021, a group of industry associations warned that there could be a need for as many as 850,000 additional workers in the telecom business through 2025, as more and more fiber projects go online.
Charter has extended its fiber footprint by about 1 million homes per year over the past few years through its edge-out programs. And the company was one of the biggest recipients of federal Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) grants to extend service to unserved and underserved areas.
Rutledge said that Charter will be an eager participant in federal projects to bring broadband service to rural areas.
“We’re very interested. There’s $42 billion there. That’s a lot of money,” Rutledge said. ■
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Mike Farrell is senior content producer, finance for Multichannel News/B+C, covering finance, operations and M&A at cable operators and networks across the industry. He joined Multichannel News in September 1998 and has written about major deals and top players in the business ever since. He also writes the On The Money blog, offering deeper dives into a wide variety of topics including, retransmission consent, regional sports networks,and streaming video. In 2015 he won the Jesse H. Neal Award for Best Profile, an in-depth look at the Syfy Network’s Sharknado franchise and its impact on the industry.