As seen on Mobile World Magazine on 11/10/2020

Skills shortages in network engineering have made people rather than equipment a market differentiator for telcos. The new challenge is finding the best person for the job.

The telecoms sector tends to be a little too in awe of its technology. We are so obsessed with its never-ending advancement – more intelligence, more resilience, more automation – that sometimes we don’t see the wood for the trees.  What we miss, is that as technology becomes more powerful and reliable, it actually becomes commoditised. This is as true in the consumer space as business – whether it’s a new washing machine or a new car, we just don’t expect things to go wrong anymore.

In every aspect of our lives, there is ever greater dependency on services residing in the cloud and the networks that deliver them, and they don’t often let us down. They have become smarter – software defined if you will – and risen to the challenge of increased capacity with more automation and built-in intelligence. Even if they do go wrong, self-healing solutions can detect a problem and fix it.

So, where’s the issue?  Ask anyone in the telecoms industry and they’ll tell you that everything’s fine until people get involved. And they will offer up compelling evidence that the single biggest cause of network outages and equipment failure is human beings coming along and switching off the power, connecting the wrong cable or worse.

So, there’s a strange paradox. If human error is the variable that causes the biggest problems, why is the telecom sector habitually more obsessed with technology that is commoditised?


Mind the skills gap

Telcos may want to rethink their position and consider that people may be their best differentiator. The quality and professionalism of engineers installing, upgrading and supporting the underlying network technologies become a key factor in the service levels experienced by customers.  When two global operators use the same clever kit and boast amazingly efficient networks and tons of smart automation, the key differentiator becomes the customer experience, which is ultimately determined by the processes and the skills of the people who enable and support the environments.

The challenge with this then becomes that our industry is facing the perfect storm of an ageing workforce and a lack of fresh blood coming in. Basically, we have a skills shortage at a time when those skills are more important than ever. We have a vast selection of advanced technology to choose from; worryingly, we are at risk of reaching a point where we don’t have a similar selection of advanced, clever people.

Lots of organisations do a superb job with the technology but are less capable on the people side of their business, and miss the talented folks who go on site, install it, connect it and test it. This becomes a fundamental flaw if you are trying to build out a global network and discover massive variability in the range of skilled people needed to optimise it.


Make people the difference

It’s essential to have access to the right level of engineering skills and experience so that the millions of pounds of investment in your network – sometimes billions – isn’t wasted. A poorly trained ‘man in a van’ pulling the wrong fibre can take out a whole service, so it’s critical that any staff touching equipment knows what they’re doing, follows the right procedures, and are skilled to the appropriate levels.

Most telcos conclude that a combination of specialist third parties and internal resources is needed, all overseen by robust people management controls. With ‘hands you can trust’ and the right processes in place, you can then deliver on the requisite consistency of service that becomes the differentiating factor.

The next challenge is finding a third party you can trust to do the job. They need to be experts in their field who span the full range of capabilities, from the design stage of the network through to building out and support. They need a capability that extends across different equipment vendors and geographies. And they need to underpin historical investment strategies and be able to manage legacy and leading-edge equipment. Finally, they need to be committed to investing in programmes to recruit new blood into the industry and train and develop them appropriately.

Backed up with this weight of experience and knowledge from the right partners, a telco will be well-placed to demonstrate unique capabilities to their customers; the latest and greatest people complementing the latest and greatest technology. We live in challenging times but get this right and your customers will thank you for it. Make your people the difference.

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