Addressing the ICT trade skills gap takes modern methods, mentoring, and mentality

June 10, 2022
A first step in attracting talent to the ICT trade is overcoming the perception of low pay.

Like all trades, the information and communications technology (ICT) industry is experiencing a significant skills gap. Predominantly driven by a mass exodus of Baby Boomers from the workforce and compounded by perception that entering the trades is unrewarding and low paying, the construction industry as a whole is now facing 650,000 open jobs according to Associated Builders and Contractors. A recent report from trade group CompTIA indicates that job postings for technology occupations alone surpassed 443,000 in April of this year. And this gap is happening just as Congress has passed the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that will pump nearly a $1 billion into bolstering broadband access and affordable connectivity.

Thankfully, there is an indication that a shift is starting to happen. Driven in part by the COVID-19 pandemic that pummeled higher education due to campus shutdowns and a switch to remote learning, many Millennials (born between 1980 and 1994) and Zoomers (born between 1995 and 2014) are starting to question the price and value of a college education. According to a survey by the ECMC Group, a nonprofit student loan guaranty agency, the proportion of high-schoolers considering a four-year education plummeted from 71% to 48% since the start of pandemic. With more young people now citing less debt, better chance of finding a job, and job security as the primary reasons for considering the trades, the ICT industry has an opportunity to attract the next generation of network designers, project managers, and copper and fiber technicians. But there’s work to be done.

Challenging perceptions

Attracting the next generation of ICT professionals isn’t easy when Millennials and Zoomers who now make up the largest generation in the workforce still have the mindset that entering the trades cannot lead to high-paying jobs. A recent survey conducted by Stanley Black & Decker found that only 40% of young people believe that skilled trade workers can earn a yearly salary of at least $50,000, with one in five believing the starting pay to be less than $20,000 a year. But the facts say otherwise.

In 2020, the average salary in the construction industry was $25,000 higher than the U.S. average of $71,000. A 2021 salary survey for structured cabling professionals conducted by Cabling Installation & Maintenance in conjunction with Fluke Networks shows an average salary of more than $105,000 for designers (including many RCDDs), nearly $95,000 for project managers, and more than $78,000 and $67,000 for lead technicians and technicians, respectively. At the same time, 4.8 million millennials are carrying an average student loan debt of more than $38K per borrower—more than any other generation—and 40% of students that enter into four-year college programs, don’t even complete them. Stanley Black & Decker’s survey showed that 80% of young people and their parents are worried about how they will pay for college.

“Nobody grows up thinking they want to pull cable and install networks. They don’t see it as being as sexy or as lucrative as being a doctor or lawyer. But not everyone is cut out to be a doctor or a lawyer, and why go into debt for tens of thousands of dollars when you can invest $5,000 in acquiring your RCDD and make six figures?” questions Chuck Bowser, RCDD, TECH, a 40-year ICT veteran, technical trainer, and host of the Let’s Talk Cabling podcast and video blog. “We need to get this message out there, and who better to enter the ICT industry as designers and installers than those who were raised with all the technology that these roles enable?”

One obstacle to changing the perception is the fact that many roles at many companies still require a college degree. Thankfully, there is some progress being made. Over the past year, media coverage has shed light on more companies eliminating the four-year degree requirement, especially in the technology field. A recent study from Harvard Business Review that looked at job posts between 2017 and 2020 saw the number of jobs requiring a degree drop significantly. In fact, 50% of IBM’s U.S. job openings do not require a four-year degree, according to Nickle LaMoreaux, the company’s chief human resources officer. Accenture, provider of IT services and consulting, launched an apprenticeship program and hired 1,200 people, 80% of whom joined the company without a four-year degree. And last year, the White House announced limits on educational requirements for IT positions.

“When companies can no longer find workers, they are going to have to shift and consider results and skill over what piece of paper someone has,” says Bowser. “Those of us in the ICT industry need to keep leading this fundamental change for young people to see the trades as a viable alternative. But we also need to change the stigma and the underlying ‘us-versus-them’ mentality where those with degrees look differently at those without degrees, and vice versa.”

Bowser also points out that schools need to shift back to offering vocational education rather than focusing solely on college-prep coursework. Throughout much of the last two decades, school funding has unfortunately been based on college preparedness and the percentage of students accepted into four-year institutions. Many place the blame on the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act that tested students to ensure proficiency in math and reading and led to the denigration and often elimination of vocational programs. Thankfully, there’s a change happening there too—albeit slowly. With the impact that the pandemic had on college students, combined with workforce shortages, some state policymakers are pouring more money into expanding what is now referred to as “career and technical education,” or CTE. Many high schools around the nation are refocusing their coursework in response, and many have seen upwards of 40% of their student body enroll in CTE classes.

Getting the old guard on board

While perception may be slowly changing, there’s no denying that ICT trades, like others, have a greater number of Baby Boomers nearing retirement and not enough young people to replace them. The National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA) found that 7,000 new electricians enter the workforce each year, but 10,000 electricians retire, creating an overall loss of 3,000 electricians annually. As many in the industry near retirement age, Bowser says they need to step up and invest their time in mentoring, but he admits that comes with its own challenge.

“Back in the early days of the ICT industry, the older generation was notorious for keeping information close to their chest because they didn’t want anyone taking their jobs. But they’re the ones with the knowledge to pass on and we need them to mentor younger people,” he says. “But they also need to learn how the younger generation thinks and how they process information. And they need to acknowledge that just because the ‘Ma Bell’ generation did something one way for 40 years, that doesn’t mean it’s still the best way.”

No one can deny the benefits of mentoring in grooming the younger generation for jobs in the ICT industry. Statistics show that 25% of employees enrolled in a mentoring program had a salary-grade change, compared to only 5% of workers who did not participate. Surveys also show that 79% of Millennials see mentoring as crucial to their career success, which coincides with their desire for a more collaborative work culture over a competitive one. Unfortunately, the statistics also show that only 42% of young people have ever connected directly with someone in a skills trade about career opportunities in their field.

With the growing need to attract the next generation of ICT professionals, industry associations are jumping on board. AVIXA, ASIS, BICSI, and others have launched official mentoring programs, and the Construction Management Association of America (CMAA) now requires trainees to participate in a mentor-mentee relationship as part of the Construction Manager-in-Training (CMIT) Program. Bowser, who is a mentor through the BICSI Mentorship Program, says that not only does the older generation need to embrace mentoring, but they also need to do it with an open mind.

“We often see the older generation only mentoring people who look like they do and think like they do. But the reality is that our world is becoming increasingly diverse, and we need to embrace that diversity in our industry,” he says. “This year, my study group and the individuals who I’m mentoring are only made up of about 10% white males. We all put our pants on the same way, and if you can do the job, that’s what matters.” Bowser says it’s important for younger Gen Xers and older Millennials in their 30s and 40s to also mentor as they typically relate better to the younger generation.

Choosing the right platform

Engaging and connecting with the next generation of network designers, project managers, and copper and fiber technicians also requires industry training, resources, and platforms specifically targeted to millennials and Zoomers. These digital generations prefer multiple training methods to choose from with bite-sized, quick, and easily digestible content. Because they are comfortable with technology and value flexibility, they also want easy access to content via mobile and online learning environments.

Many training organizations and industry associations shifted to online learning due to the pandemic, which has improved access. BICSI now offers students the ability to take their hands-on, application-focused Installer 1 Training completely virtually, even shipping student workbooks and classroom consumable materials directly to students who register. Light Brigade now offers dozens of online fiber-optic training courses, covering everything from transmission theory and installation to loss budgets and testing. Cabling and connectivity manufacturers have also stepped up their virtual training offerings, and there are more online forums, webinars, and other forms of e-learning available than ever before—all of which Bowser believes is a benefit when it comes to attracting young people to the industry.

“COVID has done a lot for the ICT industry. Not only did it give more focus to the importance of what we do, but it has also caused us to think outside of the box and reshape how we train and engage the workforce,” he says. “Prior to the pandemic, many didn’t like the idea of remote working and learning, but now it’s become second nature and is being embraced. I’ve also seen a big shift in people wanting to use their downtime to sharpen their skills and make money outside of the status quo 9-to-5 job with a significant uptick in different ways of learning.”

Bowser launched his podcast “Let’s Talk Cabling” during the height of the pandemic in August 2020 and has embraced multiple venues to reach a wide range of audiences. “While COVID wasn’t the main reason I launched my podcast, it certainly poured gas on the fire—I thought about the fact that there were a lot of people who suddenly had more spare time, and if I could help them stay sharp, they’d be better when they go back to working in the field,” says Bowser. “I use different messages on different platforms. On LinkedIn, I target more upper-level ICT professionals, but my TikTok posts are geared towards the younger installer with tidbits of information, virtual Q&As, and a weekly motivation. I truly believe that knowledge is power.”

Bowser is excited about the number of ICT companies, associations, and experts embracing new and different training methods, and hopes that it continues even as the pandemic wanes. “Before COVID, there weren’t really any podcasts and few online courses for our industry, and now there are several. I hope they last and keep going because that is how we are going to reach the younger audience,” he says. “To really attract the next generation and address the skills and labor gap, trade organizations and associations also need to operate outside of their comfort zone, and they need to do it at the speed of light because that’s the speed of the younger generation.”        

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