Cell tower industry puts out the call for more tower climbers

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Some of the top executives from the cell tower industry are ratcheting up their recruitment efforts in order to field enough technicians to meet an expected upsurge in demand. As carriers work to deploy wireless networks on new spectrum bands, and upgrade their networks to 5G, those in the tower industry are working to make sure they have enough skilled technicians to actually do all that work.

“I’m not worried about a labor shortage,” said Jay Brown, president and CEO of Crown Castle, here at the WIA’s Connect (X) trade show during a session featuring some of the biggest names in the cell tower industry. He said Crown Castle is finding enough technicians to work on both traditional macro cell towers as well as smaller locations for small cells.

However, Brown added that “we are recruiting people directly out of college, which we historically have not done.”

RELATED: Another 5G obstacle: Finding technicians to actually climb cell towers

Other tower company executives echoed those sentiments. Jeffrey Stoops, president and CEO of SBA Communications, said that it’s “so far so good” in terms of finding enough workers to climb towers. But he too said that SBA operates its own “tower university” to properly train a tower-climbing workforce.

Stoops also said that he’s concerned about finding enough technicians to address the buildout of 600 MHz spectrum. That spectrum band is rising in importance following the FCC’s incentive spectrum auction that sought to obtain unwanted 600 MHz spectrum licenses from TV broadcasters and auction them to wireless providers—the 600 MHz incentive auction ended last year, and T-Mobile walked away with a large chunk of those licenses. The situation is particularly important for the tower industry considering most 600 MHz towers are taller than towers carrying other bands.

“There’s a limited number of crews” that can handle 600 MHz towers, explained Alexander Gellman, CEO of Vertical Bridge. “That’s the one place that worries me.”

Finally, American Tower’s Rich Rossi pointed to the “Warriors4Wireless” program headed in part by WIA’s Jonathan Adelstein. The program works to push military veterans looking for work into the tower climbing industry.

And, not surprisingly, the topic of tower climbing safety came up during the session. The issue is a prickly one for the tower industry in light of a string of deaths and injuries during initial LTE network buildouts in 2012 and 2013. Indeed, just this week AT&T was part of a $30 million settlement related to a 50-foot fall that severely injured a technician climbing one of the carrier’s towers in 2013.

But SBA’s Stoops said that the industry hasn’t suffered as many deaths in recent years. “Everyone has taken safety very seriously, and it’s paid off.”

Tower company executives aren’t the only ones working on the tower-climbing workforce issue in the wireless industry. The National Association of Tower Erectors is working to stir up interest among minorities, military veterans and millennials for a job that he boasted would allow them to “start at the top and work your way down while being promoted.”