Telecommunications Industry

Significant Points

Nature of the Industry[About this section] [To Top]

Goods and services. The telecommunications industry delivers telephone, television, Internet, and other services to customers throughout the United States. Providing the primary means of communication to virtually all businesses, households, and individuals, telecommunications firms supply an essential service to the U.S. economy. In addition to offering traditional services such as wired phone and cable TV, telecommunications companies also offer services such as cellular phone, broadband and mobile Internet, and satellite TV, among others.

Industry organization. The telecommunications industry is divided into four main sectors: wired, wireless, satellite, and other telecommunications establishments. The largest sector of the telecommunications industry continues to be made up of wired telecommunications carriers. Establishments in this sector mainly provide telecommunications services such as such as wired (landline) telephone, digital subscriber line (DSL) Internet, and cable TV and Internet services. These organizations route TV, voice, Internet, data, and other content over a network of wires and cables, and control access to this content. They may own and maintain networks, share networks with other organizations, or lease network capacity from other companies. Establishments in the telecommunications industry, however, do not create the content that is transmitted over their networks, such as TV programs. (Establishments that create television programming are described in the sections on the broadcasting and motion picture and video industries). Wired telecommunications also includes direct-to-home satellite television distributors and a variety of other businesses.

Wireless telecommunications carriers provide telephone, Internet, data, and other services to customers through the transmission of signals over networks of radio towers. The signals are transmitted through an antenna directly to customers, who use devices, such as cell phones and mobile computers, to receive, interpret, and send information. A large component of this industry segment consists of companies that provide cellular phone service, which has grown rapidly over the past decade. Another component includes establishments that deliver mobile Internet services to individuals with Internet-enabled cellular phones and computers.

Satellite telecommunications establishments are made up mostly of government and private organizations that transmit a variety of data through satellites, including photos of the earth, messages to and from public safety officials, and a variety of other information. Direct-to-home satellite TV providers, however, are classified with wired telecommunications.

Other sectors in the telecommunications industry include telecommunications resellers, as well as operators of other communication services ranging from radar stations to radio networks used by taxicab companies.

Recent developments. Telecommunications carriers are expanding their data transmission capabilities, known as "bandwidth," by replacing copper wires with fiber optic cables. Fiber optic cable, which transmits light signals along glass strands, permits faster, higher capacity transmissions than traditional copper wire. In some areas, carriers are extending fiber optic cable to residential customers, enabling them to offer cable television, video-on-demand, faster high-speed Internet, and conventional telephone communications over a single line.

Wireless telecommunications carriers are deploying several new technologies to allow faster data transmission and better Internet access in an effort to make them more competitive in a market that includes wired Internet carriers. With faster connection speeds, wireless carriers can transmit music, videos, applications, and other content that can be downloaded and played on cellular phones, giving users mobile access to large amounts of data. In addition, as use of this mobile technology increases, wireless companies continue to develop the next generation of technologies that will allow even faster data transmission.

Working Conditions[About this section] [To Top]

Hours. Most workers in the telecommunications industry worked 40 hours per week in 2008, but about 14 percent worked more than 50 hours, on average. Workers in this industry are sometimes required to work overtime, especially during emergencies such as floods or hurricanes when employees may need to report to work with little notice to help restore network connections.

Work environment. Individuals in installation, maintenance, and repair occupations work in a variety of settings, both indoors and outdoors, and in all kinds of weather. Their work involves lifting, climbing, reaching, stooping, crouching, and crawling. They often work in high places, such as rooftops and telephone poles. Their jobs bring them into proximity with electrical wires and circuits, so they must take precautions to avoid shocks. These workers must wear safety equipment when entering manholes, and test for the presence of gas before going underground.

Most telecommunications managers, administrative workers, and professionals work in clean, comfortable offices. Customer service representatives often work in call centers where they answer customer service calls, and may be required to work evening and weekend hours.

Employment[To Top]

The telecommunications industry provided about 1.0 million wage and salary jobs in 2008. Wired telecommunications carriers accounted for about 666,100 of these jobs in 2008, while 202,700 were in wireless telecommunications carriers.

Telecommunications jobs are found in almost every part of the country, but most employees work in cities that have large concentrations of industrial and business establishments.

Occupations in the Industry[To Top]

Although the telecommunications industry employs workers in many different occupations, 52 percent of all workers are employed in either installation, maintenance, and repair occupations or office and administrative support occupations (table 1).

Installation, maintenance, and repair occupations. Telecommunications craft workers install, repair, and maintain telephone equipment, cables and access lines, and telecommunications systems. These workers can be grouped by the type of work they perform. Line installers and repairers, often referred to as outside plant personnel, connect central offices to customers' buildings. They install poles and terminals, and lay wires and cables that lead to a consumer's premises. Some may install lines or equipment inside a customer's business or residence. They use power-driven equipment to dig holes and set telephone poles. Line installers climb the poles or work in truck-mounted buckets, also known as "aerial work platforms," and attach the cables using various handtools. After line installers place cables on poles or towers or in underground conduits and trenches, they complete the line connections. Some line installers, called cable splicers, specialize in splicing together two telecommunication lines.

Telecommunications equipment installers and repairers, except line installers, install, repair, and maintain the array of increasingly complex and sophisticated communications equipment. Their work includes setting up, rearranging, and removing the complex switching and routing equipment used in central offices. They may also solve network-related problems.

Some telecommunications equipment installers are referred to as station installers and repairers or telecommunications service technicians. They install, service, and repair telephone systems and other communications equipment on customers' property. When customers first purchase a service, move to another home or office, or request new types of service, these workers install the necessary equipment and wiring. They also connect telephone, Internet, and TV equipment to outside service wires, sometimes climbing poles or ladders to make these connections.

Cable installers travel to customers' premises to set up pay television service so that customers can receive programming. Cable service installers connect a customer's television set to the cable serving the entire neighborhood. Wireless and satellite service installers attach antennas or satellite dishes to the sides of customers' houses. These devices must be positioned to provide clear lines of sight to satellite locations. Installers check the strength and clarity of the television signal before completing the installation. They also may need to explain to the subscriber how certain television services operate. As these services expand to include additional features, it is increasingly important that installers have an understanding of the basic service technology and computer software and be able to communicate that knowledge to customers.

Office and administrative support occupations. Telephone operators make telephone connections, assist customers with specialized services such as reverse-charge calls, and provide telephone numbers. They also may provide emergency assistance.

Customer service representatives help customers understand the new and varied types of services offered by telecommunications providers. They answer customer questions and respond to complaints. Customer service representatives spend a considerable amount of time on the phone, but some may respond to inquiries by email, traditional mail, or in person. Some customer service representatives also are expected to sell services and may work on a commission basis. Other administrative support workers include financial, information, and records clerks; secretaries and administrative assistants; and first-line supervisors/managers of office and administrative support workers. These workers keep service records, compile and send bills to customers, and prepare statistical and other company reports, among other duties.

Professional and related occupations. Nineteen percent of the industry's employees are professional and related workers. (Many additional workers in these occupations are employed at the headquarters or research facilities of telecommunications companies, establishments that are classified in other industries.) Engineers plan cable routes, equipment installations, the expansion of existing structures, and solve other engineering problems. Some engineers also engage in research and development of new equipment. Many specialize in telecommunications design or voice, video, or data communications systems, and integrate communications equipment with computer networks. Others research, design, and develop gas lasers and related equipment needed to send messages through fiber optic cables. They study the limitations and uses of lasers and fiber optics; find new applications for them; and oversee the building, testing, and operations of the new applications. They work closely with clients who may not understand sophisticated communications systems, and design systems that meet their customers' needs.

Computer software engineers and network systems and data communications analysts design, develop, test, and debug computer software programs and computer networks. These include computer-assisted engineering programs for schematic cabling projects; modeling programs for cellular and satellite systems; and programs for telephone options, such as voice mail, email, and call waiting. Telecommunications specialists coordinate the installation of these systems and may provide follow-up maintenance and training.

Sales and related occupations. Seventeen percent of the industry's employees are in sales and related occupations. These workers, such as sales representatives and retail salespersons, are responsible for selling telecommunications and related services to businesses and residential customers. In addition, the industry employs a number of telemarketers, who attempt to acquire new customers over the phone.

Table 1. Employment of wage and salary workers in telecommunications, 2008 and projected change, 2008-2018. (Employment in thousands)
Occupation Employment, 2008 Percent Change,
2008-18
Number Percent
All Occupations 1,021.5 100.0 -8.8
Management, business, and financial occupations 110.1 10.8 -8.1
  General and operations managers 10.1 1.0 -19.7
  Management analysts 8.8 0.9 -10.5
Professional and related occupations 190.5 18.7 -5.4
  Computer software engineers 28.3 2.8 -2.2
  Computer support specialists 18.0 1.8 -19.3
  Computer systems analysts 12.6 1.2 -10.6
  Engineers 32.4 3.2 -10.0
Sales and related occupations 177.7 17.4 -9.5
  Supervisors, sales workers 17.7 1.7 -10.0
  Retail salespersons 43.7 4.3 0.3
  Sales representatives, services, all other 69.9 6.8 -10.2
Office and administrative support occupations 267.7 26.2 -8.0
  Telephone operators 15.1 1.5 -12.0
  Financial clerks 20.4 2.0 -5.5
  Customer service representatives 132.5 13.0 -0.2
Installation, maintenance, and repair occupations 267.3 26.2 -11.5
  Telecommunications equipment installers and repairers, except line installers 133.2 13.0 -11.3
  Telecommunications line installers and repairers 97.4 9.5 -11.8
NOTE: Columns may not add to totals due to omission of occupations with small employment.

Training and Advancement[About this section] [To Top]

Training requirements in the telecommunications industry vary by occupation. Many jobs require at least a high school diploma in addition to on-the-job training. In addition, many positions require pre-employment testing to determine a candidate’s aptitude for technical or customer service roles. Other jobs require particular skills that may take several years of experience to learn completely. For some managerial, professional, and maintenance and repair jobs, employers require a college education.

Because of the rapid introduction of new technologies and services, the telecommunications industry is among the most rapidly changing in the economy. This means workers must keep their job skills up to date. Telecommunications industry employers now look for workers with knowledge of and skills in computer programming and software design; voice telephone technology, known as telephony; laser and fiber optic technology; wireless technology; and data compression. To maintain their skills and stay abreast of new technologies, workers may continue to receive training throughout their careers.

Installation, maintenance, and repair occupations. Many companies require telecommunications line installers and repairers to have earned a high school diploma or its equivalent. Often they are hired initially as helpers, grounds workers, or tree trimmers who clear branches from lines. Although many line installers and repairers do not complete a formal apprenticeship, they generally receive several years of on-the-job training, which may also include some classroom or online training. Technical knowledge of electricity or electronics obtained through military service, vocational programs, or community colleges can be helpful, and may be required for some employees. Because the work entails climbing, applicants should have physical stamina and should not be afraid of heights. Line installers may transfer to other occupations, such as telecommunications equipment installer and repairer, or they may move into other kinds of work, such as sales. Promotion to crew supervisor, technical staff, or instructor of new employees also is possible.

Most companies prefer to hire telecommunications equipment installers and repairers with postsecondary training in electronics; some choose to hire persons with experience as line installers. Training sources include 2-year and 4-year college programs in electronics or communications; trade schools; and training provided by telecommunications companies and equipment and software manufacturers. Employers often provide training to help equipment installers and repairers keep up-to-date with advances in current technology and improve their skills. The National Coalition for Telecommunications Education and Learning (NACTEL) is one of several organizations that work with companies and unions to offer such training. Telecommunications equipment installers and repairers may advance to jobs maintaining more sophisticated equipment or to engineering technician positions.

Office and administrative support occupations. Telephone operators should have clear speech and good hearing; computer literacy and typing skills also are important. New operators learn equipment operation and procedures for maximizing efficiency. Formal classroom instruction and on-the-job training may last several weeks.

Most customer service positions require a high school diploma, but some require an associate or bachelor’s degree. Good interpersonal skills are essential, and the ability to speak a second language may be helpful. On-the-job training generally lasts several weeks; it includes training in basic people skills, and provides the employee with information on the services offered by an organization and the questions that customers ask most frequently.

Professional and related occupations. A bachelor's degree in engineering usually is required for entry-level engineers, while computer software engineers are generally required to possess a bachelor’s degree in software engineering, computer science, or a closely related field. Many network system and data communications analysts must also possess a computer-related bachelor’s degree, but some, such as telecommunications specialists, may qualify for employment with an associate degree or related experience. Continuing education is important for professionals as technology advances quickly.

Sales and related occupations. For most sales jobs, a high school diploma is required. Most employers seek individuals with excellent interpersonal skills and the ability to sell. Knowledge of telecommunications terminology can be helpful, but may not be required for employment. There is generally no formal education requirement for telemarketer positions.

Outlook[About this section] [To Top]

Despite increasing demand for telecommunications services, employment in the telecommunications industry is expected to decline. Job opportunities, however, will arise from the need to replace a significant number of workers who are expected to retire in the coming decade. With rapid technological changes in telecommunications, those with up-to-date technical skills will have the best job opportunities.

Employment change. Employment in the telecommunications industry is expected to decline by 9 percent over the 2008–18 period, compared with 11 percent growth for all industries combined. Despite an increasing demand for wireless Internet, cable television, and mobile technologies, productivity gains will result in a reduced demand for workers. As telecommunications infrastructure becomes more reliable, for example, fewer workers will be needed to make repairs. Also, consolidation among organizations will lead to productivity growth across many occupational groups, as combined operations generally require fewer total workers.

Households will demand more services such as wireless Internet, video-on-demand, and mobile- and Internet-based telephone services. Businesses will demand faster and more advanced telecommunications systems to improve communication and electronic commerce. These services are being supplied increasingly by all the competing sectors of the industry, as the lines become blurred between cable and satellite TV, and between wireless and wired phone and Internet systems. Employment, however, is projected to decline in both the wired and wireless sectors.

Wireless companies will continue to introduce new technologies and services and provide faster Internet access. Employment, however, is expected to decline by 1 percent over the projection period. Demand will decrease for installation, maintenance, and repair occupations as the rate of expansion of the wireless infrastructure slows, because upgrading existing equipment is less labor-intensive than installing new equipment. Some occupations, however, will not see such declines. Demand for customer service representatives will grow as these workers will be needed to accommodate an increase in customers. In addition, computer specialists will not see declines because these workers will be needed to develop new technologies.

Employment in wired telecommunications carriers is expected to decline by 11 percent. Fiber optic cables, which are more reliable than their copper-wire counterparts, are expected to account for an increasing portion of the wired infrastructure. This will result in fewer installation, maintenance, and repair workers, as malfunctions occur less frequently. Employment should decline in most other occupational groups as well, as wired services, such as landline phones and cable Internet, lose market share to their wireless counterparts.

Job prospects. Job openings are expected to arise in the telecommunications industry as a result of the growing number of retirements and the continuing need for skilled workers. Prospects will be best for installation, maintenance, and repair workers, many of whom are expected to retire in the coming years, as well as for customer service representatives, who tend to have high turnover, creating many openings. Opportunities in these occupations will be best for applicants with 2-year or 4-year degrees, as well as the necessary skills.

Earnings [About this section] [More salary/earnings info] [To Top]

Industry earnings. Average weekly earnings of nonsupervisory workers in the telecommunications industry were $1,038 in 2008, significantly higher than average earnings of $608 in private industry. Table 2 presents wages in selected occupations in telecommunications.

Table 2. Median hourly wages of the largest occupations in telecommunications, May 2008
Occupation Telecommunications All industries
Computer software engineers, systems software $41.84 $44.44
Electronics engineers, except computer 38.85 41.52
Network systems and data communications analysts 36.48 34.18
Business operations specialists, all other 34.06 28.81
Network and computer systems administrators 32.68 31.88
Telecommunications equipment installers and repairers, except line installers 27.60 26.73
Telecommunications line installers and repairers 26.55 23.12
Sales representatives, services, all other 24.83 23.77
Customer service representatives 15.76 14.36
Retail salespersons 12.30 9.86

Benefits and union membership. Most full-time workers in the telecommunications industry receive substantial benefits in addition to their salaries or hourly wages. This is particularly true for those workers covered by a collective bargaining agreement. About 20 percent of employees in the industry are union members or covered by union contracts, compared with about 14 percent for all industries. Many telecommunications employees belong to the Communications Workers of America or the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.



*Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor. Used by permission.

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