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The skills gap in America and the nature of work in the wireless industry

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Trade-press articles regularly cite a shortage of trained professionals in several industries, including wireless communications. While this appears to be the case, technology continues to automate many tasks once done by humans. This article examines the changing landscape for wireless professionals and various approaches to giving them relevant training.


By Andrea Cumpston

Across the country, articles raising the alarm about the shortage of trained professionals for that industry regularly appear in the trade press. The wireless industry is no exception. We’re noticing that we may be facing a shortage of engineers (although we also debate this). Around the world, we are realizing that our youth have not been educated in ways that prepare them for the types of jobs we are creating. Add to this, the nature of work itself is changing as more tasks become automated.

It’s an exciting time but one that raises concerns about the future of American economic performance in a global economy. This article intends to present and probe some of these issues but doesn’t begin to have the answers. It is hoped that this piece will begin a conversation with you regarding the future of work in the industry and the ways we educate our workforce.

Earlier this year, the Educational Testing Service, the company that administers the GRE, SAT and other standardized tests, released a report entitled America’s Skills Challenge: Millennials and the Future, which took a close look at this age cohort’s performance in areas key to productivity in our modern age. According to the report, America’s “[m]illennials may be on track to be our most educated generation ever, but they consistently score below many of their international peers in literacy, numeracy, and problem solving in technology rich environments (PS-TRE).” The ability to problem solve in technology rich environments could include using online tools to schedule several hotel reservations, determining which reservation could not be honored and notifying the person who made the reservation that it could not be fulfilled (that was one of the problems in the test).

America’s Skills Challenge digs into the results of an international, adult skills assessment in which 22 countries participated, focusing attention on millennials (the age cohort born after 1980). U.S. millennials ranked last in the areas of PS-TRE and numeracy and ranked 16th in literacy. Further, the report states that the “top-scoring U.S. millennials scored lower than top-scoring millennials in 15 of the 22 participating countries” (America’s Skills Challenge). Similar disparities in performance were noted with the most educated and those with the greatest socioeconomic advantage. On a global stage, we are less than average. Our best and brightest are mediocre.

However, this crisis is affecting industries worldwide—not only those in the United States—according to a May 12, 2015 article in Fortune. Add to this, more work is being automated. “Technology also makes it possible for employers to redesign and disaggregate work, and to reassign routine tasks to lower-skilled employees. In health care, for example, chronic disease management can be assigned to nurse practitioners rather than to physicians.”

Alongside this growing gap in performance and in skills, America has been working to rectify an anticipated shortage of engineers, scientists and other highly skilled professionals. Not long ago, U.S. leaders focused on education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) as a key to ensuring that America remained competitive in a global economy. Dollars devoted to STEM education increased as a result.

However, according to a May 2015 expose in U.S. News & World Report, even as more students in the United States are earning degrees in STEM fields, a skills gap persists, and jobs in STEM fields remain unfilled. A rise in interest in STEM subjects in high school does not necessarily translate into a rise in engineers.

Discuss this Blog Entry 3

on Jun 25, 2015

This article overlooks a large gap, economics. What I mean by that is specifically, what do they get paid. There were several well paid RF engineers that left because the pay scale is dropping, at least here in the US. Why would they stay when they can move on and make more money. This happens in wireless rapidly. From tower climbing to RF Engineering to performance engineering to project management. The pay scale will rise, for awhile, then drop as the market floods with work. I don't think that there is a shortage as much as people leave an industry where they don't see a promising future.
This is not a bad thing, many leave to start their own companies or build applications or simply to move up into a management position.
This is all high level, but I am working in this industry and I know how quickly an area can become devalued. I did tower climbing, RF engineering, system optimization, and more. Each area not only had a cap, but the salaries would drop with automation, which I understand, but that is why people move on to another position or industry.

MicrowaveEngineer67 (not verified)
on Jun 28, 2015

To further the comments of wsarver1 – pay equity versus the demands for broad skillsets are a major issue in the communications industry. The most extreme example is a broadcast engineer. They are expected to be experts in RF, video, analog and digital technologies, high power transmitters and STL/microwave links, public carrier circuits, power systems and generators, tower structure maintenance, antenna systems, IP networking, servers and data bases, the myriad of equipment found in a typical radio and television studio, do the plant and grounds maintenance, work a lot of “overtime”, be on-call 24/7 and be subservient to very demanding employers for a low rate of pay (less than $50K per year in many markets). Sadly the required knowledge, the pay and on-call requirements are not much different for a typical two-way technician or public safety systems technician – where the systems they are responsible for are very complex and geographically diverse. Add to this the disappearance of benefits and, in many cases, overtime pay (you get compensated with one hour of comp time for one hour over 80 worked – and no time to use the comp time, which gets forfeited at the end of the year). No young person is going to sign up for this and us “old salts” (I am a relatively young “old salt” at 47) are tired and going elsewhere.

The communication industry needs to make the pay commensurate with the broad skillsets that are required to attract and keep a knowledgeable and dedicated workforce. Our industry also must make the working conditions more family friendly – increase the worker counts so “overtime” and travel away from home can be avoided or at least minimized. It’s hard to maintain a good marriage and raise kids when you’re not home.

Finally, appreciate the workers. Most employers are long on criticism and short on praise. An attaboy and bonus here and there would go a long way toward keeping the workforce enthused and morale high, which would increase productivity and profits.

Josh Aranov (not verified)
on Jun 29, 2015

I'm afraid this is a battle that was long ago lost. The economy, the culture, management culture, and technology have all moved on. Skill and in-depth knowloedge is not valued, and in many quarters they are considered an obstacle. George Burns once complained that it's a shame that vaudville was dead, because "there's no place for the kids to go and be lousy". As a training ground for show business, there was no substitute for vaudeville, where young people would go, put in the their time, and work long hours under difficult conditions, dodging rotten tomatoes if their acts didn't cut it. By the time GB was old, a young person could go from obscurity to the Tonite Show in one month. Many were not ready. I'm 60. I am the youngest tech/eng you will ever meet who still knows how to use a slide rule to compute a solution. When I started, there was still some vacuum tube equipment that needed to be maintained. Now nothing is maintained or troubleshooted. It is either rebooted, or thrown away. Young techs today will never use a grid dip meter, tune a multi-stage receiver, make their own filters and coupling coils, troubleshoot a problem from the system level down to a bad capacitor, or repair their own tools and instruments. Many have never taken tape measure, hammer, and saw, and built a shed. They have never rebuilt a carburetor. This is true of both PhD-EE's and techs. Many have never learned to properly use a voltmeter and oscilliscope, or solder a connection. In today's world, they never will. Today's equipment isn't communication equipment, as such; it is simply a collection of firmware and software, that by programming, emulates communication equipment. It isn't, at its heart, communications equipment. The inner workings of all this stuff is proprietary, hidden, and a black box. This is no manual you can read which will describe,in detail, how it works. Yes, it is more flexible, and can do some amazing things, but it will never, ever be a training platform with which techs can learn their craft. It just doesn't work that way. All the inner workings are secret. No one is willing to pay someone, skilled or not, to work a couple of hours fixing something. If it's broken, it gets tossed. Some things get tossed even before the shrink wrap is off; they're obsolete before they get used. I'm still employed--for now. I run a lot of simulations, and occasionally get to build, in real hardware, one the many, many designs I create. I occasionally get to troubleshoot a problem, but usually no one is willing to pay to fix the problem. They'd rather just buy whatever is new and just around the corner. That's just the nature of the business today. And it's not unique to our business. (There are lots
of article about "boomer skillsets" vs the millenials now coming into the workforce.)

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