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Jun 21, 2023

Hiding in Plain Site: Women Are Part of ‘Invisible’ Labor Market Building Maine’s Fiber Networks

Maine’s ambitious broadband expansion is creating demand for more workers to hang fiber. Women are increasingly responding to the opportunity.

Amber Richards stands in an aerial lift truck in the canopy of trees on Georgetown Island off the MidCoast of Maine. She steps onto the basket’s side rails, lifts the 50-pound cable lasher, and places it on the cable line.

A member of the line crew watches from below, explaining her maneuver.

“The buckets are made for guys,” the lineman says. “Women often need to step up to the side rails to reach the cable. It makes it harder, but Amber makes it look easy.”

About 30 miles west at an intersection in downtown Lewiston, Maine, Heidi Leighton, Hawkeye Fiber Optics’ most recent hire, is in another bucket learning how to splice cable to an existing strand.

“OK, now wrap it back,” the lineman calls from the street.

Heidi Leighton getting on-the-job training with Hawkeye Fiber Optics. (Photo by Carolyn Campbell)a
After the run of cable is complete, Leighton exclaims, “I was nervous, scared, shaky, and excited all at the same time.”

In a field traditionally dominated by men, Richards and Leighton are joining a growing number of women in rural Maine becoming part of fiber-optic cable line crews.

With unprecedented federal funding for broadband infrastructure, regional companies like Hawkeye Fiber Optics struggle to provide the workforce needed to land large contracts. In a recent Maine Broadband Workforce Strategy report, experts predicted the state’s fiber broadband workforce is short hundreds of positions needed to install fiber-optic cable in some of the most rugged regions of America.

A recent report from The Wall Street Journal stated that “at the current pace of hiring, the U.S. broadband workforce of some 478,000 won’t be enough to meet the government’s timeline.”

That workforce gap, according to Kwame Yeboah, Maine Connectivity Authority’s workforce development manager, is presenting a huge challenge for local, Maine-based ISPs.

“The large ISPs, like Charter, bring people from as far away as Florida,” Yeboah told the Daily Yonder. “If they have a team in New York, they just ship the whole team to the next location, house them, then they ship them back.”

To address these workforce shortages, Danae Wilson, assistant director for internet access at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, offered alternatives to traditional hiring methods, inviting ISPs to develop a strong local workshop by tapping into “invisible” labor markets.

“There are opportunities readily available at your fingertips, but they might not come through your normal realm,” Wilson said in a public presentation at the Maine Broadband Summit in March 2023. “They might be veterans, young people, people who’ve been incarcerated, and women who never imagined themselves in this male-dominated field.”

Wages must remain competitive, Wilson said, even while other industries like fast-food are increasing pay levels.

“You’ll see people with skills that are meant for fiber installation but can go work at a fast-food restaurant because they’re able to get $17 an hour,” she said. “When you start out in this field, especially as an apprentice, those aren’t the typical starting salaries.”

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