Broadband expansion has companies looking to recruit skilled workers

LAFAYETTE, La. (AP) — Bridging the digital divide has become a priority for Louisiana since the COVID-19 pandemic put a spotlight on the crucial role high-speed internet plays in the state’s education and economic systems.

Using federal funds, the state launched a $180 million program last year to provide underserved areas with high-speed internet. In March the Acadiana area welcomed Vice President Kamala Harris to Ville Platte to announce another $30 million federal grant to build fiber internet across 11 rural towns in the area.

Although major federal investments are aiming to bridge that gap, the funds can only go so far without an increase in the number of workers capable of building and installing high-speed internet infrastructure, The Advertiser reported.

“We have so much work today that we can’t keep up. We’d almost have to double our workforce without taking on any new clients,” said Nathan Carbo, who runs internet infrastructure company System Services alongside his wife Kristin Carbo.

“I need 30 people yesterday,” he added.

It’s a similar story for LUS Fiber, particularly after the city-owned telecom was awarded $21 million of that $30 million federal grant earlier this year and is asking for a $19 million piece of the state’s $180 million GUMBO program to expand in other rural Acadiana communities.

“It’s hard finding the workers that want to work in the house and that can do the critical thinking side of troubleshooting this technology, but also be skilled enough to do the operational side of running those cables, dressing it in and making sure it looks nice, plus have that customer experience so that they can articulate how to use the product,” LUS Fiber Director Ryan Meche said.

“So, there are a lot of pieces.”

But the issue is presenting an opportunity to invest in local communities and to develop a workforce that can capitalize on the need for workers who can install and repair high-speed internet infrastructure.

“Why don’t we invest in our local communities and create jobs locally with all that we’re doing?,” Nathan Carbo said.

To that end, both the Carbos and Meche are working with South Louisiana Community College to launch a new fiber-optic install technician program this summer to meet the expanding workforce needs of the region and help residents develop skills to launch their careers.

“We’ve been working with the industry now for just a little over two years to design a program that is versatile enough to produce entry level employees into each aspect of this industry,” SLCC’s Director of Transportation, Distribution, & Logistics Charlotte LeLeux said.

The school’s new fiber optic technician program is expected to launch at SLCC’s Crowley campus in July, LeLeux said, with room for about 25 to 30 students to complete the 18-20 week course.

It will cover how to splice fiber optic cables, how to hang cable on telephone poles, how to operate installation equipment and other skills. The goal will be to cover everything from construction to putting fiber in the home, LeLeux said, “so that when they’re hired on by these companies, their training with them would be very minimal.

“That would be a win for the college, a win for the student and a definite win for our industry partners,” she said.

Ideally, that collaboration is a path to building gainful employment opportunities locally, while also developing a workforce to meet the needs of increasingly connected communities in Acadiana.

“We’re getting involved at the right time, so we can start building the (workforce) pipeline, start seeing what’s working, so that, in so many years, we’ll have a continuous pipeline,” Meche said.

“It will be good for everybody,” he added. “I think it’ll create higher paying jobs, better quality of life. I think everyone’s gonna win from it.”

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