Broadband is the newest trade work for the ‘toolbelt generation’

Plumbing, welding, electrician work — these may be a few of the best-known trades needed to keep our modern world afloat. But there is a new infrastructure in place that has quickly become as common and important to everyday life: the internet.  

Beyond simple entertainment, the online world is now a key part of accessing healthcare, job opportunities, education and more. Like running water and heat, it is indispensable — especially as the demands for capacity and speed continue to grow.

Take the pandemic lockdown, which further exposed issues of healthcare inequity. Suddenly gaining access to essential resources like these required an internet connection. 

But for how wireless the internet can feel, a vast physical infrastructure is needed to sustain it. And it functions thanks to a skilled and knowledgeable workforce. As we rely more on the internet in our everyday lives, we are equally relying on these workers.  

With growing reliance and investment in broadband, the industry has become the latest skilled trade providing crucial support for our societies.  

While the spotlight may currently be on traditional trades, like plumbing or carpentry, millennials and Gen-Zers (recently coined the 'toolbelt generation') are beginning to take notice of the opportunities in delivering broadband — acknowledging them as viable and even rewarding career paths.

Subsiding stigmas: the rise of trades over traditional college

A growing number of young folks are ditching traditional university educations — both out of a price-tag fatigue as well as a visibly shifting value in its ability to provide good job prospects. 

For decades, a stigma around blue-collar work has been embedded in our education systems. Wall Street Journal Reporter Te-Ping Chen told CBS News, that vocational education has long been viewed as a path “for kids who are the troublemakers, or kids who aren’t necessarily academically ‘on track.’”  

Some schools have even used obligatory Career and Technical Education (CTE) classes — which teach carpentry skills — as a disciplinary measure for students, despite the fact that carpenters are currently making $76K a year on average.  

This discrepancy between perception and the actual prospect for pay has long plagued these types of careers, and it may be wider than people realize. 

“If a high school graduate chooses construction and on-the-job training over traditional college degree, in four years, their average salary will be $10,000 more than the recent college graduate’s, and they will carry no debt,” Sydne Jacques reported in her Ted Talk presentation.  

In any given moment of their daily life, a person is fundamentally relying on the infrastructures of plumbing, construction, electricity — and now broadband internet — to get through their days. Despite the pay and the vacancies for these types of positions, archaic school structures have in many contexts overlooked and dismissed these essential industries and what a viable path to a lucrative living they can offer. 

That continues to bear down on the mindsets of young adults. 

A Blue Collar report from 2023 — which surveyed 1,000 high-school and recent high-school graduates between the ages of 18 and 20 — found that 74% of respondents believe there is a stigma associated with going to a vocational school over a traditional four-year university. 

This survey also suggested that the source of the stigma may not only come from our schools, but also the perceptions of parents. Seventy-nine percent of those surveyed said their parents want them to pursue a college education after high school, but only 5% say the same about a vocational school.

Despite that parental pressure, these up-and-comers have their own priorities. Seventy-five percent of respondents said they are interested in exploring vocational programs and schools that offer paid, on-the-job training (and many of them do). 

Furthermore, respondents indicated job security as the most important factor in choosing a career. Just over half (56%) of them believe that in the wake of AI, "blue-collar" jobs are more secure than their "white-collar" counterparts. 

And indeed, the money may begin to speak for itself in an era with increasing wage transparency available on the internet.

Additional data from New America found that the perception of stable, lucrative jobs not requiring a college degree has steadily been on the rise since 2018.   

New America

As university burnout and shifting white-collar job landscapes are met with the climbing demand and wages of trade work, these long-snubbed industries are getting face-lifts in the eyes of many millennials and Gen-Zers.  

And some are taking action. Twenty-year-old Tanner Burgess, for example, explained to The Wall Street Journal that working as a welder — with only five years under his belt — he expects to soon be making six-figures.   

A new trade for the tool belt  

Through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), the Broadband Equity Access Development (BEAD) program is pouring $42 billion into developing broadband internet infrastructure and, ideally, attempt to close the country’s digital divide.   

But it is estimated by the TIA that at least 200,000 people are going to be needed to make that happen in the U.S. alone. And even as more people consider alternatives to a post-collegiate career, job openings in broadband aren't typically their first pursuit.  

“Your guidance counselor in high school doesn't tell you that this is a trade you could do,” Eric Popielarski, a tower technician, told us in an interview

But the jobs are indeed out there.  


Check out our jobs board for openings in broadband.

“The opportunity within construction is immense. People have a million different ways to go,” Trent Edwards, a long-time broadband construction worker and current CEO of Mears Broadband, explained to us in an interview. “What people don't understand is it's an absolute path to a great life and a great living.” 

Many roles within the industry also present the opportunity for travel — working outdoors and seeing sites across the country and world that no one else would (though there are many remote positions as well). 

People like Adam Roy have even taken the chance for travel a step further. Working as an independent fiber-splicing subcontractor, he and his family live in a mobile camper, migrating with the seasons and work. “I spend more time with my family than I ever imagined making a steady paycheck. And to be honest, the money is just life changing," he told us. 

Much of the work is quite physical, but not always as difficult as it may seem. As one broadband technician, Britni Cuington explained, "Yeah, you will get dirty, but it’s really not that hard... the job really is not hard." 

Depending on the employer, some roles may also be connected to a union, providing benefits that can allow a worker to earn a degree or support their family throughout their careers. 

"With a union, we have a voice,” said Cuington, whose unionized position not only provides workplace advocacy but also allows her to be with her son, who has autism, for some of his at-home therapies. “I wouldn’t be able to do that without my union,” she added.

The demand for the work is certainly there, with the forthcoming broadband builds requiring thousands of new technicians, support reps, construction workers and more. And the opportunity moves beyond a summer job, as it presents lucrative and fulfilling career trajectories, some with family-sustaining benefits and support. 

And beyond its vocational opportunities, it's time the broadband workforce was more widely acknowledged for critically supporting our daily lives. 

Just as the world relies on electricians, plumbers and other skilled trades, it may be time to add the fiber splicers and tower climbers who keep us connected to that esteemed list — recognizing them as essential workers of our digital age.