Skills shortages put the communications industry’s future on the line

An ageing workforce and critical engineering skills gaps have left the UK’s communications industry struggling to prepare for the next wave of technological advancement. Amid the tightest labour market in years, what can telecoms employers do to answer the call?

That scrambling noise you hear isn’t interference, it’s the sound of the communications industry frantically trying to meet customer demand despite an acute labour shortage and a technical skills gap that has created ten unfilled roles per business across the UK. Worse still, years of low recruitment have left telecommunications employers with rising labour attrition rates, as more than 60% of their engineering workforce are past the age of 50 and insufficient trainees and graduates have entered the industry to keep the talent pipeline full.

Unfortunately, bleak as those observations are, there is more bad news for communications engineering. Even though 36% of employers within the telecoms industry expect to add to their staff during the second quarter of 2023, 42% of these same businesses report a specialist digital or IT skills gap in the external labour market, and 45% say they have identified the same alarming skills deficit within their current workforce.

Retiring employees. A lack of trainees. Too few new recruits. A massive shortfall in technical skills. The UK’s communications engineering industry is clearly out of order… just as the next wave of technology is arriving to increase the stress.

The next big thing, and no way to deliver it

Announced in 2020, the UK Government’s large-scale ‘Project Gigabit’ project aims for a minimum of 85% of households and businesses – that’s 30 million premises in the hardest-to-reach 20% of the country – to have access to gigabit broadband by the end of 2025.

This ambitious plan places the onus on the telecoms industry to deliver that 85% coverage, with internet service providers (ISPs) needing a solid framework to support the build-up of their fibre networks. A mass roll-out of advanced communications technology is critical to success. However, according to a recent report by Eightfold AI, 33% of businesses in the leading network engineering and operation positions are not currently equipped to adapt to these emerging and necessary telecoms trends, particularly 5G, Open RAN, and artificial intelligence (AI).

These new technologies and systems are essential to deliver Project Gigabit and build the self-optimising networks (SONs) that will fulfil future network demand. Delivering improved customer satisfaction, increased competition and customer choice, lower service costs, fewer outages and high network quality is dependent on a large and highly skilled engineering workforce to provide the technical support. However, with current recruitment and training programmes unable to fill worker shortages and plug the yawning skills gaps, how can communications employers secure the workforce they need now and for tomorrow?

36% of telecoms employers think it’s important their engineers understand AI by 2027

Facing the future – two steps at a time

Meeting the current and future communications demands of consumers, businesses and Government will require a transformation of present workforce strategies. Relying on open recruitment when the talent pool is static, or allowing skills to become obsolete and accepting rising attrition rates are not the answer. Delivering Project Gigabit and other communications developments will require a new workforce plan:

Step 1: Experience trickles down

Experience is everything. The industry’s current workforce are the bedrock for the future. They have the core skills that can be enhanced to manage rising technology challenges, as well as the deep experience that can trickle down to new entrants to the business. Enriching and retaining the experienced end of your workforce is the best way to support new workers and to ensure a strong pipeline of engineering professionals across all levels. But how is this achieved?

  • You can’t fix anything until you know what’s broken. Employers must first conduct a skills inventory to identify the gaps and understand how they impact different levels of worker.
  • Once the needs are known, devise a digital skills strategy, (preferably a two years plan to ensure comprehensive take-up and completion), that seeks to enhance the skills base of your current workforce via a mix of upskilling and reskilling:
    • Upskilling – Digital skills training to sharpen current workers’ skill base and to ensure high competency with new and emerging technology.
    • Reskilling – Role transformation and new skills training to retain experienced workers where their current skills set is becoming obsolete. Reskilling these valuable workers into new roles will not only help businesses fill the gaps they see now and expect in the future, it will also extend the employee’s career.

Step 2: New talent rises up

At the other end of the talent pipeline, employers must accelerate the recruitment of trainees and apprentices. Fresh talent is necessary to replace retiring workers and meet the expanding needs of the communications industry. Critical to this plan is making a career in telecoms engineering attractive to a younger workforce by creating a diverse and inclusive work environment.

Generation Z , (those born 1995 – 2015), will constitute 27% of the UK’s total workforce by 2025.  This is a cohort who feel strongly about Diversity, Ethnicity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB) in the workplace – viewing these attributes as necessary for high worker morale and business success. Organisations without a strong DEIB platform will struggle to recruit these essential younger workers, so they must make it a key element of their employer’s proposition (EP) – the intangible magnet that makes candidates want to work for a specific company instead of a competitor. An authentic DEIB policy will extend across all areas of the business, from the C-suite to the shop floor, and it must be embedded in training and digital skills programmes as well as being honoured by the experienced workers who perform the essential mentoring and on-the-job training activities to bring new workers to full effectiveness.

56% of Gen Z workers would not accept a role in a business without diverse leadership

Meeting the challenges of tomorrow means starting now

The communications industry is facing some difficult challenges, but they are not impossible to overcome. Investments in training programmes, transforming company culture, and devising an attractive employment proposition for trainees and apprentices will go a long way towards solving the skills and labour shortages that affect the industry. However, time is of the essence. Bringing raw talent up to speed and giving experienced workers the new skills and tools they need to manage highly complex technology is not done overnight. Given the rapid rate of technological advancement and the envisaged expansion of communications services across the UK, telecoms employers must start planning their workforce transformation as soon as possible. If they don’t, that scrambling noise may soon become a permanent message that says, ‘service unavailable’.

Answering the call – a task best shared

Identifying skills gaps and delivering the programmes to fill them may prove too difficult for many telecoms employers to manage on their own. Specialist knowledge of the industry, ready access to a wide talent pool for new recruits, and the ability to operate targeted reskilling and upskilling operations (including DEIB) are essential requirements for success.

Manpower Engineering has the people, (via our wide talent pool), processes and technology to help telecoms businesses achieve better workforce results. We understand the communications industry and we are a leading provider of engineering solutions to the sector. This includes our MyPath programme, a reskilling and upskilling centre that helps our associates develop their expertise and deliver value for the communications organisations they work for, as well as a unique telecoms vertical to help ISPs build their Fibre to the Premises (FTTP) programmes nationwide, and a tech academy that equips new and mature talent with the right skills to fulfil the engineering jobs of today and for the future.

Whether your organisation is seeking new communications engineers, trainees, apprentices, reskilling and upskilling training programmes, or an authentic DEIB policy and employer proposition, Manpower Engineering has the solutions for your needs. Find out more about our specialised services for the telecommunications industry today. Let us help you answer the call.