How might 5G impact the US workforce?

5G is expected to support transformational change across multiple industries: More efficient factories, smarter transportation, more holistic health and so on. Expectations are high, even if the exact path to such widespread shifts isn’t entirely clear.

But the increased digitalization and connectedness that 5G will enable has also prompted the question of how the transition to the next generation of wireless technology will impact humans — and more specifically, jobs. While 5G is widely expected to be an economic boom (hence the global “race” to dominate 5G development), that doesn’t necessarily mean that the economic benefits will be evenly distributed within a country or across jobs from top to bottom. 5G-enabled automation, such as autonomous vehicles, could just as easily result in job losses and will almost certainly drive needs for re-training workers as their job tasks and relationships to machines change.

So what are some of the high-level expectations for 5G impacts to the U.S. workforce? Here are a few.

-An IHS Markit study in 2019 estimated that 5G will generate 22.3 million jobs around the world by 2035. An updated IHS Markit/Omdia analysis in late 2020, accounting for the pandemic, bumped up that figure to 22.8 million jobs. Around half of those jobs are expected to be located in China, but the U.S. is expected to see nearly 3 million.

-An economic analysis by Accenture, released in February, estimates that between 2021-2015, 5G will add up $1.5 trillion to U.S. GDP and that 5G “has the potential to create or transform up to 16 million jobs across all sectors of the economy,” a figure that includes full-time, part-time and temporary jobs. IHS also said that “multiplier effects will be felt in every industry,” and that every direct job created by 5G within the Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) sector is expected to create an estimated 1.8 additional jobs, for a total of up to 2.8 total jobs throughout the economy. In ICT, for instance, Accenture estimates that there will be 1.2 million direct jobs added by 5G, plus another 1 million indirect jobs and 1.2 million more “induced” jobs as a result of household spending created from those additional jobs. Accenture breaks down numbers on a per-state basis, ranging from up to 40,000 new jobs in North Dakota, to up to 2.4 million jobs in California.

-A recent report from Boston Consulting Group estimated that in the U.S., 5G deployment will contribute $1.4 trillion to $1.7 trillion to national GDP over the next 10 years and create 3.8 million to 4.6 million jobs during that period. That estimated growth covers both direct infrastructure investment and deployment of the networks (about 30% of the total) as well as indirect growth in jobs and revenues as 5G enables innovation in other industries (about 70% of the total). “At first, 5G will contribute to economic activity directly through network infrastructure deployment,” the report says. “But as 5G networks continue to roll out and improve, an even greater wave of economic activity will occur indirectly as the networks enable new and improved use cases across industries. These will deliver significant socioeconomic benefits through higher productivity, improved cost competitiveness, and better health and safety.”

The BCG report, commissioned by CTIA, also makes some regional estimates of 5G GDP impacts, saying that while all of the U.S. will benefit, “regions with a “broader base of industries are likely to see more balanced, indirect 5G growth as those companies adopt new technologies such as smart sensors, virtual and augmented reality, and cloud computing. A region’s demographic characteristics such as age, education, and income will also influence how much and how quickly 5G contributes to the local economy.” The report estimates that for the 10-year period between 2020 and 2030, 5G deployment will create 800,000 to 1 million jobs from direct spending on capital and labor. Most of those jobs will be in construction, information services and manufacturing of infrastructure-related equipment. But about 70% of the total value generated by 5G, the BCG report said, will be realized in indirect 5G benefits, as 5G transforms industries other than ICT itself. Those indirect impacts, it said, will create $1-1.2 trillion in value and 3-3.6 million jobs by 2030 in verticals such as finance, transportation and even manufacturing, where 5G could help U.S. factories to become globally competitive in efficiency and cost-effectiveness, possibly drawing jobs back from overseas.

-The Progressive Policy Institute released analysis in the fall of 2020 estimating that 5G and related technologies will create 4.6 million additional jobs by 2034. Their analysis estimated that as of April/May 2020, current 5G build-out and engineering activities were creating 106,000 jobs.

“In an important sense, 5G job creation is a countervailing force to job destruction from automation and globalization, and critically important in the post-COVID world,” the think tank’s authors wrote. The LTE-fueled transition to an app economy created mostly “cognitive” tech jobs which required a college education. 5G, the authors said, will drive many more such cognitive tech jobs, but will also fuel demand for “mixed ‘cognitive-physical” skilled jobs, many of which fall into the category of installers and maintainers, giving examples such as field sensor technicians, construction drone operators, telehealth installers, and robotics or autonomous vehicle maintenance.

The study’s authors, Michael Mandel and Elliott Long, also make the point that employment statistics projected by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics often miss the impacts of new technologies – for example, its projections for telecom industry jobs predicted a drop from 1993 to 2000 and ended up being off by 50% as the industry saw jobs explode, driven by 2G/3G growth. The BLS numbers for employment in the wireless industry peaked in 2007 and fell by half by 2019 – but, the PPI authors said, “In fact, wireless was creating jobs, but not in the wireless industry. More and more IT professionals were involved in either developing mobile apps, maintaining them after they were on the market, or supporting them with users.” But those jobs weren’t “in” wireless, by BLS statistical reckoning – instead, there was a surge in people working in “computer and mathematical occupations.” One of the report authors had estimated in 2012 that, based on analysis of job postings, the “app economy” was supporting 466,000 jobs, which grew to more than 2.2 million by April 2019 – representing annual growth of more than 20%, even as the overall number of “wireless industry” jobs was falling.

The “second wave” of wireless innovation, or the app economy, focused on industries “where the output can be reduced to bits and bytes”: Content, social networks, ecommerce – and those make up less than 20% of the economy, PPI said. What the authors called the “5G revolution” is “based on the applications of wireless to the challenges and opportunities in physical industries, such as agriculture, energy, construction, manufacturing, transportation, education, healthcare, and government (including defense).” The fact that 5G will straddle both the digital and physical worlds means that in addition to the type of high-paying tech jobs that came with the app economy, 5G is expected to “generate blue-collar jobs that use a combination of manual and problem-solving skills … which are likely to pay a wage premium as well.”

For more insights on 5G workforce trends, keep an eye out for RCR Wireless News’ upcoming editorial report.

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