Addressing the Digital Infrastructure Skills Crisis

Capital investment in UK broadband infrastructure has quadrupled over the past two years, albeit it has not yet recovered to the level before local loop unbundling. This has revealed severe shortages in the supply of the skills to construct and/or upgrade networks. The problem will get worse as investment in ubiquitous, local, mixed, full fibre and wireless mesh infrastructures, to support smart buildings, business parks, cities and countryside, takes-off. The rest of the world, including Europe, has the same problem as they too acclerate their investment in the future. This is would not be a problem that can be solved by importing supposedly skilled staff, regardless of immigration policy.

The solutions are simple.

Most of the skills in short supply can be acquired and assessed within days or weeks provided employers and those in their supply chains come together to agree standards and organise co-operation to meet common needs.

But who is organising the necessary skills partnerships: from setting standards, through delivering training and supervising work experience to assessing and accrediting competance?

On 18th June I was asked to introduce discussion on skills issues at the quarterly meeting of the UK Fibre Connectivity Forum after their meeting in the House of Lords  (for which they had to whittle 500 applicants down to 200 to make room for the MPs and Peers). The UKFCF brings the supply chain of cable and equipment suppliers and construction companies alongside those building and operating networks to lobby for investment in a full fibre and 5G future. Unlike other groups it is not concerned to protect the past from the future.

My contribution (paraphrased below) followed a presentation on the current state of the Local Full Fibre Network programme. It was, in turn, followed by speakers on the current state of the UK market for investment in full fibre and 5G as part of the critical national infrastructure of the future. In the course of the following discussion I learned that DDCMS and almost all players in this space (large and small) are agreed on the scale of the problem and the urgency of the need for action. But agreement does not mean action will happen. That is up to YOU.

My main points were:

1) The incumbents now trying to rebuild their in-house teams are not training enough to meet their own needs. They are therefore competing with new entrants for an already inadequate pool of experienced and competent contractors.

The success of City Fibre (now co-owned by the infrastructure arm of JP Morgan), Gigaclear (now 80% owned by the infrastructure arm of the Prudential with the other 20% held by British Rail) and Hyperoptic (backed by George Soros) means there is no shortage of expansion capital (debt or equity) for those who have shown they can run a viable business serving a thousand of so customers. There are more funds chasing investment opportunities than there are local authorities with the joined up policies and processes for access and wayleaves, building regulations and planning permission necessary to create those opportunities.

Add in the investment plans of BT, Arqiva, Gamma, O2, Virgin, Vodaphone, WIG, Zayo and others, let alone those of the property companies who are looking to build their own infrastructures to enable multi-operator access (the VX model) and we face a massive short terms skills problem. But it is not a bubble. It is the foothills of a ten year boom to create the ubiquitous critical infrastructure utility connectivity of the smart society.

2) The pace of change has outstripped the ability of current UK public sector funding, accreditation, regulation and delivery structures to respond.

In my recent blog, on the Education Select Committee enquiry into the challenges of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, I referred to the accelerating pace of change “no current curriculum can prepare young people for the future. Education has to focus on basic disciplines and the willingness and ability to learn new content and skills as and when needed.”

But there is good news:

The growing use of on-line packaged materials, not just for content delivery and practice but for course planning and performance assessment has transformed industries’ ability to identify raw talent and turn it into competent, revenue earning technicians or professionals within weeks or months, not years.

This has changed the balance of economic and social value between full time degrees and modular graduate level training programmes (including, but not just, apprenticeships). A talented teenager on a well-structured blended learning programme (mixing supervised, experiential on-the-job learning with off-the-job contextual/academic modules) can soon do sufficient productive work to cover most, if not all, of their ongoing training costs and salary.

I will not list all the obstacles in the way of harnessing the technology to turn talent into competance, including by cross-training the existing workforce, but these began with:

• confusion over what is good practice (at almost every level)
• consultation and planning overload

3) The problems, (of relevance, quality and quantity), are at their most urgent and acute with regard to the construction of full fibre and wireless networks – but these are only the beginning.

The UKFCF asked me to address the problem of apprenticeship standards, without which it is no possible for employers to offset their training spend against their levy charges. Apprenticeships vary, in level, quality and content, even more than degrees. But a discussion of standards only makes sense in context. I therefore began with numbers before addressing quality, relevance and the interplay with regulatory politics. But delivery is everything – especially in a time of accelerating change. That leads to the need to work together on creation of skills pipelines, from schools, through apprenticeships to workforce updating, to meet demands that will evolve and grow as smart communities increasingly depend on high reliability, resilient, secure and inter-operable utility infrastructures, both fibre and 5G.

4) We need to unpack the demand for Digital Infrastructure Skills by nature and by volume:

Deep Skills/R&D – where demand is only in hundreds and is limited mainly by willingness to pay for courses/modules.

Professionals – where demand is may be in thousands but is mostly for skillsets which experienced technicians can acquire rapidly.

Technicians – the area where failure to act on shortages will indeed constrain growth. With curent supply negligble compared to demand in tens of thousands, but mostly for skillsets which can be acquired/assessed within days/weeks given flexible/modular programmes and/or skills incubators

Applications technicians – where long term demand is millions: from plumbers/electricians installing “smart” networked systems to catering staff and careworkers maintaining and using them

Deep skills are needed by a relatively small number of suppliers and consultancies who want post graduate level skills but are reluctant to commit the time and money to develop them. Much of the current demand for graduate professionals is really for the technician level skills that have been neglected over recent decades. But by far the biggest demand will be for application technicians, from those installing smart systems along high streets or in shopping malls, commercial centres and business parks, to digitally competent plumbers and electricians installing home systems amd careworkers looking after the growing numbers of elderly dependent on such systems.

The technician level is that with the most immediate problems in demand and supply, crossing the boundaries of current telecoms, construction and customer service apprenticeship standards. But most of the technical skills in demand can be acquired within days or weeks using packaged materials available from technology, product and service suppliers. The issue is to organise supervised work experience and the assessment of competance, when and where needed, within programmes that enable employers to reclaim against the apprenticeship levy.

5) We have to address the processes for accrediting quality, relevance and funding

At the heart of the problem of addressing the quality and relevance of standards lies the decision taken last year, (apparently by officials while ministers were pre-occupied with a snap general election), that the new Institute for Apprenticeships would deal direct with employers, cutting out the Sector Skills Councils, created in 2002 to streamline consultation with employers but never allowed to replace the confusopoly of duplicated funding agency and academic channels.

Nothing has yet taken the place of the Sector Skills Councils although some have been turned by their active participants into employer funded operations to collectively handle their inputs. In the case of Digital, the Tech Partnership operations handling the accreditation of the ITMB (and other degrees) are being spun out and extended to handle degree level apprenticeships .  It is, however, unclear what is happening with regard to those at Level 3 and 4 – where the demand is very much greater.

Standards (including but not just for apprenticeships) see IFA Website for details

o Digital Solutions Professional – L6
o Network Engineer – L4
o Unified Communications Technician – L3
o Infrastructure Technician – L3
o Network cable Installer – L3
o Digital Applications Technician – L3
o Building & Highways – L2, 3, 4

Delivery (including shared skills incubators) see IFA website for currently approved

Accreditation: (trainers, suppliers) processes being tested by Ofsted with large employers (e.g. IBM)

Certification (individuals): serious mismatches between those recognised by employers and those recognised by funding agencies

Registration (individuals competent to …) c.f. CNI Utilities, Aircraft maintenance, Medicine

UK-centric standards built on the skills maintain/extend the legacy networks of BT and Virgin and/or other computer networks are of limited value for a world in which standards, including for full fibre and 5G, are set globally. There are many relevant short courses and certifications from the academies of suppliers like CISCO, Huawei, IBM and Microsoft. But the number of UK Colleges and Universities offering these dropped sharply after the accreditation costs were effectively excluded from public funding.

Then came the Trailblazer Apprenticeship Standards which the Institute for Apprenticeships is due to start reviewing. The number of training providers offering to help employers use them is low and current throughput is almost negligible, although BT has announced plans to train and/or retrain a several thousand. Meanwhile Amazon Web Services and its commercial training partners (like QA) are now training thousands each year in the secure use of cloud-based services (for which there are no apparent apprentice standards). AWS has joined those who global players who recognise that their local markets (of which the UK is but one) are constrained by the skills of their customers and run “Academies” and “Garages” accordingly.

BT and Royal Signals have been involved with many of Digital apprenticeship standards produced to date. But it is unclear how many of these can be used to cover the skills for modern public utility open communications infrastructure as opposed to networked computer systems. For example, I am told that the “Unified Communications Technician” apprenticeship standard, advertised as suitable for telecoms technicians, does not yet cover the skills needed for broadband access or mobile networks. It is also unclear whether such skills are covered in the standard for Network Engineer. Meanwhile the Network Cable Installer standard has yet to be agreed.

When it comes to the civil engineering side of network construction, a number of Construction industry standards seem relevant for those concerned with wiring up smart buildings and highways but they were not drafted with this in mind and responsibility for maintaining and implementing the standards appears fragmented with little or no apparent co-ordination.

Will this area be addressed and/or co-ordinated as part of the new Construction Industry Training Board skills programme ?

Which digital infrastructure employers are working to ensure that their civil engineering contractors participate and/or benefit?

Logical Conclusion

Those who wish to offset the cost of training employees (or those in their supply chains) building, installing or maintaining the fibre and wireless networks of the future against the apprenticeship levy need to get engaged with those who are working on the standards that will enable them to do so. But the uncertainty over the future of the Tech Partnership makes it difficult to work out how to do so. Hence the reason I was invited to present to the UKFCF.  Meanwhile the task of the officials in the Institute for Apprenticeships and Ofsted (responsible for accrediting providers) will become easier if, instead of complaining, the malcontents can support consortia of those who understand how to specify and maintain standards, particularly those who are also involved with UK inputs to global bodies, to help fill the gap as necessary.

Fibre and wireless networks are part of the UK critical national utility infrastructure in all but regulatory status.  We will therefore need to accredit and certificate the competence of employees and contractors, including to obtain professional indemnity insurance for the damage they could do to other networks sharing the same duct, mast or utility room. Most critical networks, connecting data centres or hospitals or supporting power networks, now run across infrastructures built, maintained and/or owned by multiple operators. BT may remain the largest UK employer of telecoms apprentices for some years and is talking about opening its training facilities to others, but the future is a structure of regulated, utility partnerships, not a BT or Openreach maintenance monopoly.

That means partnership in setting standards, accrediting suppliers and certificating the ongoing competence of individuals – as with other utilities and industries – from power supply to aerospace. The initial apprenticeship is not enough. Are the individuals keeping up to date as technologies and applications change.

We need to build Digital Infrastructure Skills partnerships to:

• Agree and maintain Standards
• Share and accredit evolving delivery
• Certificate and Register evolving competance
• Create pipelines to handle accelerating change

So who is willing to work with who, via which channels to achieve what?
(BCS, Creativeskillset, DPA, IET, INCA, SDEMTA, Tech Partnership, Tech UK, UKCFC …) 

The immediate task is to help those already working on the existing standards to agree processes for assembling a much wider variety of modules (standards, content and assessment) into more flexible skills development programmes (alias apprenticeships) which run for at least a year from start of programme to final competence assessment. That timescale is to enable the levy to be reclaimed, even though the apprentice may be fully productive in their current role from within days or weeks of starting. It enable use of an apprentice training contracts to recover other employer funded training costs from those who leave early (Strathclyde Regional Council v Neal is the relevant test case)

The pace of change is, however, such that the actual (as opposed to theoretical generic) competences required may change within the year. Hence the importance of the processes for maintaining standards, including for product and service accreditations. This also means that the first apprenticeship is but one step on a ladder with a need to also certificate ongoing competence. More-over an accreditation worth having is also worth falsifying – hence the need for robust registration and audit trails.

In parallel there is a need to work together to ensure that the Ofsted processes for accrediting training providers are compatible with those used for reputable in-house or vendor “academies” and/or industry accredited Colleges, Universities and commercial providers. This has added importance when it comes to using shared skills incubators to deliver supervised work experience on behalf of those unable to do so themselves.

Work on the creation of registers of certificated technicians, whether by trade associations like FCS or professional bodies like IET may be less urgent but will soon become  equally important. We are on a treadmill of accelerating change. Short term actions should be designed to also facilitate the creation of partnerships and pipelines to attract the talent and develop the skills for the future.

Successful partnerships are, however, driven by coalitions of the willing.

Hence the core question is – “who is willing to work with who, to achieve what?” beginning by working with and through those, like the Tech Partnership, who are already working with the Institute for Apprenticeships to tackle the gaps in current standards and ensure the processes necessary to update these in line with evolving needs.

But we also need to consider how to organise and fund a massive increase in thoughput.

Several members of the Digital Policy Alliance were in the audience and discussed with the UKFCF team the need is for a round table of those who will bring budgets and resources to the table, not just bids to spend other people’s money. There were also some very interesting ideas on how to transform the numbers and quality of technician level training including, for example, expanding the relevant military training programmes with civilian intakes, instead of waiting to recruit time-expired servicemen.

Please let me know if you would be interested in being invited in a follow up discussion on how to work together to the problems into opportunities.


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