The telecoms sector is booming once again, following five years of relative dormancy. The evidence is everywhere. In the UK alone there’s BT’s 21CN, which will see over 4500 exchanges swapped out in the coming years. Over the summer of this year, we saw the rollout of the UK’s first HDTV-ready, 10GB Ethernet infrastructure for Sky’s triple-play services. And these ambitious projects are mirrored across Europe, as telcos and operators look to replace or upgrade the 1980s technology in their networks.
This renewed, significant investment in next-generation comms infrastructure will bring tremendous benefits to businesses, consumers and the telecoms sector as a whole.
But there’s a catch. Where are the skilled telecoms engineers that are going to implement and deliver the new networks? Without the people to build them, these ambitious new projects run the risk of delays, of going overbudget, and of unreliability once they are up and running.
Since the dotcom bubble was punctured in 2001, the comms engineers that were building ISP infrastructure simply moved on to other sectors. After all, these are skilled people, who were able to transfer their knowledge and technical expertise easily to other sectors – some in other IT fields, others in industry at large. Some simply left IT altogether.
The problem is, due to the low demand for engineering services over the past 4 to 5 years, there’s been little training and investment in replacing those lost engineering skills – a fact recognised by industry and Government alike.
This is a double whammy because not only is there precious little new blood, the engineers that left the telecoms sector five years ago cannot simply get straight back into the saddle. Technology has moved on, with IP-ready networks taking precedence, the latest developments in fibre analysis and characterisation to account for, and more. So there’s a need for the old hands to catch up and retrain.
So what’s the solution to the rapidly-widening skills gap? I believe that there are four key steps that can help to bridge the gap, attracting both fresh faces to the sector in the first place, and old hands back into the fold.
Make it fresh
One of the biggest hurdles to attracting new blood into the industry is its staid image of hard hats and leg spikes for climbing telephone poles. An October 2006 survey conducted by the Government Training and Development Agency for Schools rated IT and telecoms as the fifth most boring jobs category – so the industry is not presenting itself in the best light.
With what’s happening in the industry right now, we are building the comms backbones for the coming decades – so let’s promote and celebrate the achievements that we’re involved in, not downplay them.
Inshore, not offshore
Another key reason why new blood is not being attracted to the industry is the trend for offshoring, which according to the Learning and Skills Council has taken many traditional ‘first jobs’ for further education graduates overseas. With falling opportunities, graduates are simply looking elsewhere for their jobs – which means the base of telecoms experience is gradually being eroded.
What’s needed here is a two-fold investment. First, external investments in education and training in telecoms skills. Secondly, the industry has take part of the responsibility to bring offshored roles back into the country to create the opportunities to swell the skills base.
As the telecoms and networking sectors converge, there’s also a tremendous opportunity to help networking engineers and other skilled IT staff to transfer their IP skills across to telecoms.
Where previously the two worlds would keep apart from each other, IT professionals now typically do not aspire to linear career paths based around a single technology. So we should encourage the interchange and cross-training of skills and ideas from networking to telecoms.
Finally, the telecoms sector should look to specialists in support and installation, for turnkey delivery of engineering capacity as and when they need it. After all, one of the reasons for the move to offshoring engineering jobs is to reduce overheads – but this has also introduced issues with quality assurance on work done, and has led directly to the skills gap we’re experiencing.
By partnering with the right specialists, telcos and operators can have the in-depth deployment and maintenance skills put at their disposal, flexibly. So before we build the networks of the future, there’s a little engineering needed to bridge the skills gap. But I believe these four points could make the foundations of the bridge – fast.