Challenges and solutions for building tomorrow’s fiber workforce

Feb. 6, 2023

By Deborah Kish, Fiber Broadband Association

The fiber industry is experiencing unprecedented growth that is guaranteed to continue throughout the next five years and requires the addition of over 205,000 new jobs to construct, operate, and maintain new high-speed broadband networks across America. These networks will support vital civic functions such as education, medicine, and public safety. Fiber is an essential and vital infrastructure that provides the unique combination of low-latency and high-speed bandwidth demanded by consumers and required for 5G and future cellular technologies, but fiber technicians are in short supply and high demand.

Federal agencies and the private sector alike understand the need for investment in more telecommunications jobs. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) has recognized workforce development as a priority to build out the communications infrastructure of the nation, with funding from the $42.45-billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) broadband infrastructure program available to be applied to workforce and job training. The National Skills Coalition has recommended a “robust” portion of BEAD funding be dedicated to workforce development and career pathways activities through industry sector partnerships and/or apprenticeships that result in high-quality credentials.

Young industry, big challenges

As odd as it sounds, the fiber industry is relatively “young” at 35 to 40 years old, compared to established skilled craft trades that trace their roots back to the late 1800s. Apprenticeships would evolve and grow over the decades into formal vocational training programs offered through high school and community colleges. There are plenty of shop classes for auto repair, electrical work, and the like, but fiber does not have that training footprint.

In comparison, few community colleges and no high schools to our awareness have a fiber-optic technician training program. High-school students may not even be aware of or think about a career as a fiber technician because they do not know the job exists. Instead, students interested in technology are most recently being steered towards coding and other four-year college degree white-collar jobs rather than a vocational track that provides a well-paying job and a steppingstone to other opportunities within the industry.

This lack of resources and structure places the burden of fiber technician education upon vendors, service providers, and construction contractors. Each organization typically has their own ideas and varying standards as to the type and quality of instruction needed before they send a new hire in the field under the supervision of an experienced employee who likely has learned their craft through on-the-job training. Compounding this matter, the size and relative youth of the industry has led to lack of an industry standardized training methodology, so field trainers may be passing along their own bad habits or workarounds instead of what new entrants should be learning and why they are learning it, in the way of best practices for work quality and safety.

Enter OpTIC Path

Because of this vacuum, the Fiber Broadband Association (FBA) has created a formalized training course for fiber optic technicians to provide the qualified workforce the industry will need to build and sustain the country’s fiber broadband infrastructure over the next decade. The FBA OpTIC Path: Optical Telecom Installer Certification is a 144-hour instructor-led course providing approximately 40% knowledge and 60% hands-on skills lab training. FBA’s ultimate goal is to have OpTIC Path offered across all 52[DK1]  states and territories. At present, the program has been considered or adopted by community colleges, vocational programs, veterans' programs, training facilities, and employers.

Created, built, and reviewed by subject matter experts in the fiber world, OpTIC Path is designed to provide future fiber technicians with the skills and knowledge required to install, splice, test, and maintain Fiber to the Home (FTTH) and Fiber to the Building (FTTB) systems. The course provides students with the knowledge and skills required in a building-block format, so novices can easily follow the content and material. By the end of the class, students will be able to install, test, and troubleshoot components to completed systems, including at subscribers’ FTTH and FTTB locations. FBA recommends 8 to 12 students per class, providing the ability for students to get sufficient craft time in the classroom preparing and splicing fiber, connecting fiber optic terminals, and testing all the elements necessary for a broadband connection.

OpTIC Path provides advanced entry-level classroom training with hands-on skills work in the lab working with fiber, tools, and equipment, providing employers with people who have experience working with physical media, someone who has touched and tested fiber, identified a break, and done some troubleshooting. Graduates of the program can hit the ground running with some supervision and minimal on-the-job handholding. Hands-on training enables budding fiber optic technicians to get faster exposure to the jobs they might want to specialize in, be it splicing, testing, or troubleshooting, with opportunities to specialize in outside plant or premises installation. After a few years of experience, career opportunities in other parts of the industry can open in areas such as field operations, marketing, and sales.

One bonus feature of OpTIC Path is that it is a National Registered Apprenticeship program with the U.S. Department of Labor. Successful completion of the course makes graduates eligible for either an internship or 2,000-hour apprenticeship (1 year) with a communications service provider or installation contractor, depending on availability.

Training the trainers

To nurture the growth of the program and students, the Fiber Broadband Association is conducting Train the Trainer workshops across the country through its regional Fiber Connect workshops and annual national conference. The 12-hour Train the Trainer sessions review the course curriculum, methods of instruction, class strategies, instructor responsibilities, and specific product hands-on coordination when application.

The OpTIC Path Train the Trainer workshop is part of a multi-step process in vetting classroom instructors that includes instructor self-assessment, testing of knowledge and skills, and recent evidence of applicable hands-on fiber work they will need to teach and test in the classroom, such as splicing and building a closure.

Since the launch of the OpTIC Path pilot in March 2022, the program is being offered or considered by over 40 colleges, learning institutions, and employers in 32 states and two countries outside of the U.S. OpTIC Path continues to gain momentum as FBA partners with other stakeholders to advance critical workforce education and training for the broadband industry. FBA has a collaborative development agreement with the Wireless Infrastructure Association (WIA) to promote OpTIC Path industrywide.

In November 2022, the White House recognized the contributions the Fiber Broadband Association has made toward workforce development as part of a larger national effort by more than 350 organizations in 50 states as a part of the administration’s Infrastructure Talent Pipeline Challenge to create equitable workforce development in the broadband, construction, and electrification sectors. The FBA is making a long-term commitment toward creating the educational infrastructure necessary to build the broadband jobs of the future and we expect to announce more progress in the months and years to come.

Deborah Kish is vice president of research and workforce development for the Fiber Broadband Association.

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