Early in the pandemic, state unemployment departments experienced unprecedented strains on their resources. Many of us have blocked out memories of those days, but in March/April 2020 the number of people applying for unemployment benefits was 860% higher than at the peak of the 2008 financial crisis – and the infrastructure had not been designed to cope with this kind of scale.
Unfortunately, many systems were built in the 1970s using an early programming language named COBOL, so in order to address the issue, state governments across the nation desperately needed to hire a bunch of COBOL experts.
Of course, COBOL is not exactly a modern technology. Just as rotary phones were replaced with touch tone phones, which were replaced with cell phones and then smart phones, COBOL was replaced by C and Java and PHP and Ruby on Rails and Node and whatever today’s cool programming language is.
Consequently, the available pool of professional COBOL programmers was very small, and New York ended up offering some very attractive fees to a bunch of retired COBOL developers who suddenly discovered that their skills were (momentarily) in very high demand.
As with COBOL, so with telecoms?
I worry that we’re in danger of experiencing the same problem in telecoms.
- If students today are learning about telecoms at all, they’re learning about VoIP and how to program PBX (or hosted PBX) systems.
- Most telcos still manage significant SS7 networks, but the technicians who understand these networks are getting older and some of them are retiring.
- In some cases a service provider is reliant on one key employee who understands how to operate a particular switch – making it tough for that technician to take a vacation, and leaving a big hole if he/she ever takes a new job or retires.
I’m not saying everyone in telecoms is old (I don’t consider myself to be old!), but I do see the pool of people who understand TDM getting smaller. We haven’t reached a COBOLesque level of crisis yet, but I’ve certainly heard of telcos having a hard time hiring good telecoms engineers.
So what can we do?
It’s a tough problem to crack, but at Award Consulting we’re taking a couple of different approaches.
- We do think it’s important to train new people in the world of telecoms. Most of our core team have decades of experience in telecoms, but for our most recent hire we took a different approach. We intentionally hired someone (David Wunderlich) who did not have prior telecoms experience, and over the past 8 months we have been training him ourselves with great success. What’s more, this lays the foundation for us to repeat this approach with future team members – so we can transfer expertise from our industry veterans and build a sustainable team for the long-term.
- At the same time, we want to make the most of the experts available, even those who don’t want a full-time role. We have some team members who work part time, and maintain relationships with some contractors who have particular skill sets that we only need occasionally. We don’t need someone on-staff full-time to be able to benefit from their expertise.
In your case this may well look different, but if you are able to do some cross-training for junior members of your team that will help you in the long-term. In our ideal client relationships we work as an extension of the core voice team – providing some expertise that may not be available locally, and sometimes providing some lightweight training/mentorship as we work alongside local techs during configuration or troubleshooting. In this way we aim to help both by adding immediate expertise to the team, but also through developing local talent.
These staffing challenges are an industry wide problem, but by investing in training and by using external experts where needed, we can continue to provide great services on resilient networks to our customers.