By Anirban Sarma
The final round of India’s 5G spectrum auctions was conducted swiftly over the first week of August 2022. The government has since issued spectrum assignment letters to the winning bidders in record time. Telecom service operators are now bracing themselves to launch 5G services in 13 cities in the first phase, followed by a nationwide rollout.
The shift to 5G is likely to have several key advantages, the most frequently spoken of which are the high download speeds that will be brought to cellular and other devices. The relatively low latency of 5G will better support emerging technologies and services such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT), virtual reality, robotics, and cloud computing, and will make for an improved user experience even for activities as basic as browsing. With increased bandwidth, 5G is also expected to facilitate the seamless inter-device transfer of data and improve the performance of devices using Wi-Fi.
The advent of 5G has unleashed a wave of demand for a new generation of digital and technical skills. In 2022-23 alone, 5G may attract 40–50 million consumers in India, and by 2025, India will require an estimated 22 million skilled workers possessing 5G-related competencies. These will include specialised skills in security and network architecture design, AI and machine learning algorithms, open radio access network development, IoT, big data analytics, cloud computing, and cybersecurity. As a result, a talent war has already erupted among tech corporations, consulting firms, and start-ups. Recruitment drives are continuing apace across the country.
After a worrying slowdown for much of 2020, and encouraging signs of recovery the following year, the Indian Information Technology (IT) sector has been injected with a wholly new sense of urgency since the dawn of 5G in 2022. Hiring and upskilling have accelerated; head hunters have recorded an increase of more than 100 percent in 5G-facing hiring mandates in 2022 over the previous year. Recent surveys of online job portals also show that postings for roles such as ‘telecommunications engineer’ have increased by 16 percent in the last two months, and those for 5G and telecom jobs in general have grown by nearly 34 percent between September 2021 and September 2022.
There is mounting concern, though, over India’s demand-supply gap for 5G-centric skills. The gap, according to the Telecom Sector Skill Council (TSSC), stands at 28 percent.
This skill deficit must be rectified on a priority basis. Earlier this month, the Union Minister for Communications, Electronics and IT announced a plan to set up 100 5G labs where use cases of 5G technology can be explored and relevant training provided. Key to the plan is the government’s invitation to private telcos to covert a minimum of 12 of these labs into telecom incubators that will train students and conduct experiments. Besides, setting up at least some of these labs at premier technical institutes such as the Indian Institutes of Technology can open up novel possibilities for creating interfaces between government, industry, and academia; building the capacity of next-gen engineers; steering product innovations from concept to reality; and providing a sandbox for sector-specific deployments of 5G.
Strategic partnerships with private players, and the latter’s involvement with course design and content, will be crucial to the success of 5G skilling programmes. It is hard to imagine any other way in which an incisive understanding of industry requirements can be built. The TSSC, for instance, is currently collaborating with public and private players to train India’s upcoming 5G workforce; the National Skill Development Corporation runs courses in partnership with Cisco, IBM, and others to impart training in 5G-allied technologies; and programmes offered exclusively by private entities already enjoy considerable traction. As the Indian 5G story unfolds, it will become increasingly important for the nation’s futuristic mega-skilling initiatives—such as the government’s programme to train 10 million Indians in emerging tech or the skilling opportunities being made available through the DESH Stack e-Portal—to align themselves with the needs of the 5G ecosystem.
Technical competencies, of course, are critical. But soft skills and core human attributes must be honed as well. As Klaus Schwab notes in The Fourth Industrial Revolution, “demand will increase for skills that enable workers to design, build and work alongside technological systems, or in the gaps left by these technological innovations.” Indeed, studies of Indians’ digital skills have often drawn attention to the need for greater creativity, social intelligence, teamwork, and improved communication skills amongst workers.
By 2030, 5G technology is projected to contribute US$ 1.3 trillion to the global GDP and US$ 42 billion to India’s GDP. Creating a cadre of trained professionals to manage the transition to 5G and beyond could, therefore, help sustain a new era of economic growth. In doing so, India could emerge as a major contributor to the 2030 Agenda’s imperative of ensuring “productive employment and decent work for all”, and the target of achieving “higher levels of economic productivity through […] technological upgrading and innovation.”
 Klaus Schwab, The Fourth Industrial Revolution (London: Portfolio, 2017)