How Gen Z Will Play a Critical Role in Bridging the Digital Divide and Bringing Internet to All Americans

By David Stehlin, CEO, TIA

The federal government’s commitment to delivering “Internet for All” through the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity Access and Deployment (BEAD) funding program promises to once and for all ensure that every American has access high-speed broadband connectivity. The benefits to closing the digital divide are numerous and well-documented, ranging from improved educational opportunities for rural households, to boosting the economies of small communities.

The Biden administration’s mandated timeline for deploying these massive, mostly fiber optic-based networks is “within the next four years.” The plan is aggressive and requires a sufficiently sized and skilled workforce that is ready to do the work. According to industry experts, there is a significant gap in the number of qualified fiber optic technicians, tower climbers, construction crews, customer service representatives and network technicians that are needed to successfully implement these projects across the country. Estimates vary on the number of additional workers needed but consistently range between 150,000 to 200,000.

How Did We Get Here?

BEAD represents an unpreceded number of simultaneous network builds in the U.S., but the existing workforce is aging out at a quicker rate than it is being replenished. In my opinion, there are two primary reasons how the telecom industry got to this point.

First, the benefits of working out in the field and the compensation for doing so hasn’t remained competitive enough. Prior to the pandemic, more high school graduates chose the pursuit of professional, white-collar jobs through traditional four-year college degree programs than careers in the trades through vocational school and apprenticeships.

Over the past two decades, enrollment at traditional colleges has risen more than 25%, from 13.2 million in 2000 to 16.9 million in 2016. Trade school enrollment only grew in the low single digits over this same period, and it is easy to understand why. Perceived prestige, career optionality, assumed intellectual stimulation and higher salaries are among the top reasons.

Second, there is a general lack of awareness of what next-generation network technicians do and the many substantial benefits these careers offer. The marketing of these viable trades, especially to the millennial generation and younger audiences, has been insufficient and in decline for years.  Since 1985, federal funding for vocational exposure in high schools has fallen by 32%.

The Tide is Turning

It appears that these trends are shifting, which is good news for the deployment of communications infrastructure projects. A recent Wall Street Journal article pointed out some interesting and promising new trends in vocational education and trade profession interest that bodes well for meeting the BEAD labor shortage challenge. According to the article, rising pay and the opportunity to work on new, leading-edge technology are making trade jobs and careers more attractive and competitive, spurring interest from those entering the workforce or changing careers.

Demand for trade work, like fiber technicians, construction workers and tower climbers, is surging and expected to remain in demand well into the future. For the past four years median annual pay for new construction hires has been higher than salaries offered to new hires in both the professional services and information technology sectors. In addition, growing skepticism about the return on a “traditional” college education, the cost of which has soared in recent decades, is making trade education more appealing. The data speaks for itself: enrollment in vocational-focused community colleges rose 16% in 2023 to its highest level since 2018.

Another significant reason younger workers are increasingly considering careers in trade professions is the threat of having their jobs replaced by artificial intelligence (AI)-based technology. The rapid growth and advancements in AI brings with it the threat of being employed in an area that can be supplanted with this technology. Because of this potential threat, more younger generations are looking into alternatives like trade schools to learn skills that cannot be replicated by AI.

Even though pay and demand are up for trade jobs like telecom network technicians, there is still much work to do to ensure enough people are trained and positions are filled to meet the aggressive infrastructure construction timelines of the BEAD program. A large telecom contractor firm recently noted that one person applies for every nine job openings they post. There simply isn’t enough talent moving through the pipeline yet. It is clear that in addition to ensuring that salaries and other benefits for these skilled professions remain competitive, it is going to take a significant increase in marketing and awareness programs to address this critical problem.

Addressing the Workforce Challenge Head-on

The Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA) has decided to address this issue head-on.  At TIA, my team and I are dedicated to working closely with government, industry, and academic partners to advance the goal of connecting every American. To further this commitment, we are placing a strong emphasis on bridging the workforce gap. TIA has launched Broadband Nation ( in collaboration with Fierce Network, a Questex company, as a comprehensive National Workforce Development Program. This initiative aims to attract, train, and deliver the next wave of broadband talent at all levels – local, state, and national.

Through an innovative online platform, Broadband Nation will serve as a central hub connecting individuals to training and job opportunities within the broadband industry. Additionally, it will convene key stakeholders from government, industry, and academia to address workforce challenges directly at the upcoming Broadband Nation Expo, which will be held in Washington D.C. this October. Broadband Nation is completely aligned with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s (NTIA), the organization overseeing BEAD, recommendations, serving as a unified and cohesive effort to bridge the gaps in the U.S. broadband workforce.

It is crucial that we all come together in a comprehensive effort to ensure high-speed, reliable broadband is accessible to all Americans if we are going to accomplish the BEAD programs intended mission. Broadband Nation is designed to do just that. With a skilled broadband workforce, individuals in underserved and underserved communities across the country will be able to benefit from the numerous opportunities and benefits that broadband connectivity brings. Broadband helps all people and all communities. And frankly, America needs more ‘missions’ that bring us together.