How Apprenticeship Can Help U.S. Telco Workforce Buildup

Zulkernyne Ibne Tahasin
8 min readMar 25, 2023

As the Covid-19 shakes most global economies, the world of employment has experienced the worst-case scenario of unemployment due to business disruption, reduction of revenue flow, and stay-at-home policies to mitigate the spread of the virus. Employment rate in most industries is dipping, and some industries like hospitality are feeling the heatwave brought by Covid-19. On the contrary, telecommunication companies are trying to expand their workforce in the middle of the pandemics with a severe labor shortage. This factor thwarts emerging technology adoption, such as the 5G rollout in rural America. Tech executive Zulkernyne Ibne Tahasin shared his thoughts on current 5G progress and challenges. Zulkernyne has been working in telco industry for a decade and has first-hand workforce development experience for new technology introduction and massive rollout in different markets around the world.

Current US Telco Job Market

The 5G alone is projected to create three million jobs by 2025 and contribute $500 billion annually to the U.S. economy. Currently, 5G design and buildout has already created over 106,000 direct jobs in installation and engineering works. Overall, the U.S. telecommunications industry employs 672,000 workers, with average annual wages of around $77,500. It is projected that 5G roll out will create 850,000 more new direct broadband and 5G jobs through 2025. While the jobs are there, American workforce supply is not adequate to fill them since tech labor force seems to be shrinking with expanding job demands.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, the past four decades have seen considerable employment demography changes. The telecommunication workforce declined from 1,124,936 by the end of the 1980s to only 893,929 by the end of 2019. Although the tech industry sector has constantly been expanding and contributing more than 12% of US GDP, directly or indirectly, the drop from 1.4% to 0.6% of the national employment doesn’t demystify the seriousness needed in growing such sectors. The future projection shows a further decline in the technological labor force if there is no intervention to save the situation.

Present Apprenticeship Scenarios

From the labor demand perspective, highly skilled experts’ skill decline and overreliance account for such short labor. Education, per se, shouldn’t be considered a significant entrant proxy to technological jobs, yet only 45% of telecommunication workers have four years of college degrees or higher education today. Surprisingly, the department of Labor highlighted that nearly 41% of technological jobs don’t need a 4-year degree, as a person qualified through apprenticeship could earn as high as $50,000. If that the case, why is there a large employment gaps in technological industries? Is apprenticeship not adequate for the U.S. economy? Whatever the answer might be, failure to support apprenticeship programs due to lack of labor flexibility and career growth is an apagogical argument against numerous benefits associated with an apprenticeship in driving much-needed labor supply for technological growth in the U.S in the near future.

Reports by Urban Institute professor Robert Lerma suggest that America lacks robust apprenticeship due to failure to try. A survey by NATE revealed that only 27% of companies in the U.S. uses apprenticeship for both training workforce or recruiting workforce; a factor truly demystifies the failure of the American system to recognize the power in apprenticeship. For the same reasons, the U.S. has only 82,000 apprentices graduates and nearly 26,000 registered apprenticeship programs across the nations, far much less than 719,000 participants in England in 2020, despite the population of the U.S. being almost six times that of England.

Apprenticeship Potentials

The deployment of apprenticeship in the technological industry in contemporary America can revolutionize the employment landscape and infuse numerous employments demographics changes. Apprenticeship provides avenues for supplying, developing, and upgrading skills for better job experience. In Austria, Germany, and Switzerland, apprenticeship helps absorb 50–70% of young talents into technical jobs, ensuring a smooth transition. Studies done by the U.K. government attested that apprentices could provide a formidable way of building a skilled, motivated, and qualified workforce. The survey found that 86%,78%, and 74% of employees agreed that apprenticeship helps develop relevant skills, improve their productivity, and improve service quality. Analysis by ITP enterprise on 500 firms suggests that 83% rely on apprentice programs for skilled labor, 88% feel that apprenticeship increases workforce motivation,2/3 rely on apprentice graduates fill job vacancies, and 59% believe that internship is cost-effective. Hence, deploying the same apprenticeship skills in the U.S. tech industry would improve job skills and upgrade the workforce to new technologies needed for emerging technologies, especially in the 5G systems.

Apprenticeship in the U.S. is miraged by the perception that it sacrifices earning and blocks career development, reduces demand-supply shifts, yet it is distinctive in enhancing both the worker supply side and the employer demand side of the labor market. In reality, apprenticeship doesn’t sacrifice earning and provides long-term earning benefits that are proportionate to that of the college graduates. The earning and wage growth are likely to pick along almost the same line as their college graduate counterparts since the apprenticeship training raises wages by about 4% per year of apprenticeship training. For a three- to four-year apprenticeship, post-apprenticeship wages ended up 12–16% higher. More also, the U.S. Department of Labor found out that workers who complete an apprenticeship (a case of an electrician) can earn a median annual wage of $56,900 (by May 2020), which is projected to grow by 8% in 2029.

Further studies by Mathematica show workers can earn $240,000 more throughout their lifetime — $300,000 when including benefits — by participating in apprenticeship programs. Registered apprenticeships are essential in the wake of 5G and economic recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic as low-skilled American workers who have lost their jobs or young people entering a weak job market to train for future employment while earning a decent income.

Apprenticeship vs Higher Study

Principally, technical jobs require higher training fees than other courses. It’s needless to say that technical students have to pay education fees than other counterparts in business, humanities, or social subjects, contributing to disparities in graduates enrolled in these courses and subsequent job market saturation. Comparing tuition fees for the various courses, engineering students have to dig deeper into their pockets to study than their business counterparts. For example, Electrical engineering students at California State University have to pay €5,886/year for master’s degrees, a very high value compared to €1481 per year paid for an MBA course at American University Washington DC. A master's degree in electrical and computer engineering cost €7,482 per year at John Hopkins University, that is also much more than €1,481 /year a student pays at American University Washington DC. Even though tuition fees considerably change depending on university status and time, tuition fees for the standard education system remain high.

It’s estimated that students have to spend an average of US$99,417 throughout their degree for abroad studies. In contrast, the value for a degree course at a public university is the value at $26,290. These circumstance subjects the student to hefty student loan which infiltrates to public expenditure and consequently increases taxation. Apprenticeship solves such issues by reducing the amount spent by the state government on a government loan. For instance, the state government of Washington reveals that for even 1$ spend on apprenticeship, 23$ are saved, making apprenticeship a wise investment venture. All this happen when apprentice programs are almost zero rated. Then why pay more yet same output and value?

Apprenticeship: A tool to resolve US disparities

The tech sector has been faced with numerous labor disparities. Disparities in labor can be traced by economic factors that thwart college degree acquisition, especially for middle-level Americans. With engineering courses being costlier, it’s expected that labor shortage will be a stinging issue in the American telecommunication industry. Looking at demographic characteristics of telecommunication workers provide by the Economic Policy Institute, there are higher gender, race, and education attainment disparities. Education attainments make individuals with college degrees or higher education more likely to be employed in telecoms than people with high school and lesser education. Between 2016–2019, the fraction of college graduate or above employees were more than 71.1% (63.5% from college graduate and 13.6% from advanced degree course) of total telecommunication workers, leaving only 21.9% for non-college graduates. Such statistics stress college graduates’ need to secure telecommunication jobs, yet tuition fees become another hurdle, especially for low-income earners. Gender disparities follow the same trend, depicting 30.8% and 69.2% for women and men in the same period. A worst-case scenario is described by race and ethnicity of telecommunication workers, with the majority white race taking a whopping 62.0% of the total and rest is distributed among other minor races (Black,14.3%, Latino, 13.3%, and Asian American/Pacific Islander, 9.6%). Even though gender disparities may be accounted for, the low volume of women in the U.S. workforce race disparities accounts for several factors such as economic situation, dropout levels, facilities distribution, and deeper analysis. The naked truth is that minor races have been looking down back from the Jim Crow era, creating an unfair playground for these races. Facilities in minor races, especially education facilities, remain reduces while economic status becomes deplorable due to segregation in wages, while apprentice is less limited by such facilities disparities.

According to Inside Higher E.D., the median wage for workers with a bachelor’s degree for whites is $75,000 compared to $65,000 for blacks and Latinos. Such factors reduce the inability of black and Latinos to access quality education and compete favorably with white counterparts. With inequalities still being a stingy issue in US, the minority races have to exploit powers in apprenticeship to remain at par with their white counterparts. Equally, the National Center for Education Statistics shows that the minority races have higher school dropouts for high school students, creating a largely unqualified workforce. Black poses a dropout rate of 6.4%, while Hispanic, Pacific Islander, and American Indian/Alaska Native have a dropout rate of 8.0%, 8.1 %, and 9.5%, respectively. These values are higher compared to 4.2% among the majority-white race. Drop out increase disparities and call for apprenticeship as a formidable way to absorb such populations. As such, apprenticeship programs can be viewed as a proxy to ending labor disparity and creating large labor pools from middle-class Americans, especially the minority races who are primarily unemployed, have higher school dropout rates, and are more economically disadvantaged.

Some Final Words

Apprenticeship proves to be a blockbuster in exploiting tech opportunities as it can offer substantial benefits to both workers and the industry. Expanding apprenticeship programs for telecommunications in the U.S. helps address tech jobs’ demographic disparities. It creates a large pool of tech workers for unexploited potential in school dropout, minority races, and upgrading skills for workers to bolster productivity. These programs go a long way in preventing further erosion of the middle class by providing alternative pathways to jobs in telecommunications jobs markets at a meager cost of learning. Therefore, existing US govt. initiatives need to be well executed, state govt. need to play a significant role to sponsor and promote apprenticeships, industry leaders need to come forward to spread the words to adopt apprenticeship strategies by employers, education institutions need to encourage students for apprenticeship programs. Such combined effort will contribute a lot to bring a skilled and smart workforce to serve the US in coming years.

To know more about Zulkernyne Tahasin check his website and follow him in LinkedIn.

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Zulkernyne Ibne Tahasin

I am Zulkernyne Ibne Tahasin, A Technology Consultant and Strategic Leader focused on leveraging data analytics and project management. https://zulkernyne.com