Tower Industry Reunites in Music City

NATE’s 2018 conference highlights legislative priorities, certifications & more
By Emily M. Reigart,

It’s been a busy year in the broadcast and telecommunications world, and things aren’t likely to slow down for the tower industry in particular in 2018.

NATE UNITE 2018 will have an energetic trade show floor bustling with activity

“To communicate, everyone needs data; everyone needs technology, so that’s good for our industry,” National Association of Tower Erectors Executive Director Todd Schlekeway said.

Things are good — and busy, especially since the existing tower worker shortage has been exacerbated by increasing demands for tower deployment. To alleviate that problem, NATE, which is an association of approximately 770 tower erection, maintenance and service companies, is heavily focused on outreach and recruitment.

But once you attract the new workers, you need to train them.

“Training and certification are key pieces of workforce development,” Schlekeway said.

Enthusiastic attendees enter the exhibit hall at last year’s NATE UNITE 2017 Conference in Fort Worth, Texas.

NATE members are on the front lines of network densification. “Our members have deployed every generation of technology of networks, and we’re on the precipice of doing it again here for 5G. And so it’s important that the workforce continues to have an evolving skillset to handle not only work done at heights, but work done on the ground.”

And starting this year, some wireless carriers are going to require that a certain percentage of the workforce be NWSA-certified to work on their site, he said.

The National Wireless Safety Alliance was established with seed funding from NATE and is based in Fairfax, Va.

Schlekeway explained, “We believed a national certification organization like the NWSA was a missing piece, and it’s really going to play a major role in enhancing the overall safety and quality of the workforce,”

The NWSA offers two certifications, the Tower Technician I and Tower Technician II programs. Additionally, NWSA’s subject matter experts are “about halfway” done developing a tower performance certification.

In order to be certified, participants will be required to pass two standardized tests, both a computer-based written test and a field-based practical test at a tower site. According to Schlekeway, over time, this will provide increased confidence “that the tower tech in West Virginia and the tower tech in Maine from different companies who had different training pathways will have proven that they understand and that they can perform the scope of work required of that worker category.”

Prospective employers will be able to verify a technician’s credentials through a unique ID number, portable for the worker and comparable to an electrician’s license, Schlekeway said.

Another important element of NATE’s outreach efforts is increasing gender diversity; thus, the Women of NATE group was born.

“We’re really trying to cultivate speaking opportunities, leadership opportunities for women,” Schlekeway said. “We want to give them more of an elevated platform when NATE has events and conferences.”

Another initiative, the NATE Wireless Industry Network, launched in 2016. According to Schlekeway, the WIN network is NATE’s “grassroots program that’s designed to promote NATE at the regional, state and local levels and facilitate communication and collaboration between all stakeholders in the wireless and broadcast industry.”

WIN divvies the U.S. up into eight regions, each with its own regional ambassador. Every state also has its own liaison. Because of that, Schlekeway says it enables NATE to “have boots on the ground at any wireless or broadcast event that goes on in,” and they’ve also hosted one-day regional conferences. WIN liaisions also “lobby legislation at the state level to provide grassroots support for legislation that’s important for our industry.”

The WIN program also created a “speakers bureau,” which means NATE can help provide speakers who are subject matter experts.


Legislative and regulatory advocacy are key elements of NATE’s leadership role for its member companies.

A fall protection demonstration led by industry training company ENSA on the NATE Unite 2017 exhibit hall floor.

“By virtue of the scope of work that our member companies do and the diverse and evolving nature of the industry … we really cast a wide net” and work with many federal agencies, Schlekeway said.

In 2018, NATE’s top priority when lobbying the Federal Communications Commission is streamlining the deployment of infrastructure, Schlekeway said.

“Qualified NATE contractor companies and equipment suppliers are currently on the front lines performing essential tower work pursuant to the repack by safely deploying thousands of new antennas and wireless equipment on broadcast and cellular communications structures located across the country,” Schlekeway said.

“NATE’s priorities and focus during this transition will be to provide the broadcast and wireless industry workforce with the safety, standards and best practices resources needed as well as the necessary education and training to conduct their jobs in a safe and efficient manner.”

Moreover, NATE will continue striving to expand the size of the workforce capable of working on telecommunications towers of all heights, and will ensure that those workers are properly educated and trained.”

He noted that “whether macro towers or small cells,” all of this is needed to densify networks, and this discussion is being held not only with agencies and on Capitol Hill, but also state capitals around the country.

Also, Schlekeway noted that the Trump administration has a “different direction they’re taking OSHA, so we’re building relationships with them.”

NATE has had a long-standing relationship with the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

NATE member companies receive recognition for commitment to safety, training, accountability and reliability at NATE Unite 2017.

According to Schlekeway, “Each presidential administration tends to have its own unique philosophy when it comes to occupational safety and health issues and working with industry. The Trump administration appears to be much more open to forging alliances with private industry to enhance safety and health initiatives, and so NATE is currently engaging high level officials within the agency to discuss potential collaboration opportunities. NATE is looking forward to Scott Mugno’s confirmation as the next Assistant Secretary of Labor—OSHA becoming official soon.”

And over at the Federal Aviation Administration?

“NATE is all in on unmanned aerial drones,” he said. “We have a UAS committee. There’s a lot of safety and quality benefits associated with using drones at communication towers sites, so that’s an issue that continues to be a priority for us.”

The UAS comittee is comprised of tower contractors, licensed pilots and UAS service providers. The committee released a resource document intended to educate the wireless infrastructure industry and communications tower personnel about the safe use of the technology. It was recently updated to reflect the issuance of the UAS rule by the FAA.

Schlekeway explained that “some of the climbs involving tower inspections can be eliminated with the use of newer and better technology and techniques,” including UAS.

“There are many commercial use cases associated with drones. To name just a few, NATE is currently seeing drones utilized for tower inspection purposes, for public safety purposes, accessing infrastructure damage in the aftermath of natural disasters and for close-out documentation purposes that are required,” Schlekeway said.

NATE UNITE attendees enjoying an educational session.


The association’s conference NATE Unite 2018 will be held Feb. 19–22 in Nashville, Tenn. It’s NATE’s 23rd trade show, and Schlekeway anticipates that turnout will be good. He attributes this, in part, to timing.

“It’s one of the first industry conferences that takes place every year, and so it works out great ... that first quarter is a great time to get everyone together and refocus.”

“NATE Unite 2018 will consist of the most diverse lineup of sessions and speakers that the association has ever had in our 23 years of hosting a national conference. Whether it is a session conducted by the FAA or a speaker representing the FCC, our lineup will have special appeal to folks representing the radio and broadcaster community who attend,” Schlekeway said.

“We’re very thrilled with our keynote speaker, Lou Holtz. He’s one of the premiere motivational corporate speakers in America,” Schlekeway said. Holtz is a former college football coach, author and now a sought-after speaker.

Another notable name announced ahead of the show was that of U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R–Tenn.). Schlekeway described her as “a champion for our industry.” Blackburn is the chair of the House subcommittee on communications and technology; she will deliver the keynote at the awards luncheon.

According to Schlekeway, the 2018 sessions reflect the multiplicity of NATE’s membership.

Contractors, wireless carriers, broadcast contractors, training companies, manufacturers, distributors, public safety entities and tower owners are NATE members. Attendees have a variety of roles within their respective organizations or companies — some are field personnel, others are business owners or human resources professionals or work in other administrative roles.

“It’s really a very diverse set of sessions, but also one that will appeal to anyone who attends our show. [They] will always have something to go to each hour of the conference,” Schlekeway said.

“If you’re a business owner or a human resources professional within your company, there’s a lot of good opportunities in that administrative or business track. The technical tracks are often geared towards the tower technicians and field personnel, and focus on a lot of pressing issues, not only from a safety and quality standpoint, but technology and equipment upgrades and that sort of thing...

NATE UNITE offers many networking receptions.

“This year, we’ve added the carrier track. We have a barter agreement with the Competitive Carriers Association, so they’re going to be talking a lot about the policy discussions in D.C., as it relates to our industry.”

Schlekeway continued, “The carrier track of sessions will really focus on some of these discussions going on in federal and state levels that impact where this industry is headed, so we think it’s vitally important to give that a spotlight and a platform at our conference.”

NATE will also feature a session about complying with the Department of Transportation.

Schlekeway said, “Navigating the rules of the road for commercial motor vehicle operators” is going to “be a very impactful session because we have the former administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration Annette Sandberg as the speaker.”

Schlekway noted that DOT compliance is a hot topic among contractors. “I get more questions on that than probably anything else.”

Another federal agency will be represented with a session on “Navigating FAA’s Obstruction Evaluation Process,” which Schlekeway predicted will be interesting.

Also, he said NATE “thought it was important” to have a session on disaster and emergency preparedness, “especially in light of the hurricanes in Texas, Florida and then Puerto Rico.”

“NATE members and contractor companies really rose to the occasion” during and after the tumultuous 2017 hurricane season. He also remarked on how well infrastructure held up in those environments and said “the infrastructure that needed to be repaired and to get the network back up [in Florida and Texas] was repaired very quickly and efficiently,” which he called “a testament to our industry.”


Who: “Decision-makers in the broadcast and telecommunications tower erection, service and maintenance industry”

When: Feb. 19–22

Where: The Gaylord Opryland Resort, Nashville, Tenn.


How Much: Members $189, others $469 (higher after Feb. 16 and on-site). One-day and exhibits-only passes available.

However, Schlekeway said, “Puerto Rico was a different story all together. … There were some unique logistical challenges in terms of accessing the infrastructure... That took a lot longer, and they’re still not all the way there. But the bottom line is infrastructure really fared well in those natural disasters.”

Also in the technical track is a session about applying industry standards to real life work scenarios. “Several of the panelists were instrumental in writing TIA-222 revision H,” which was released in October, Schlekeway said. He noted that the TIA-222 standard governs the structure of a tower, and the updates don’t happen very often. It’s a five-plus year process to revise a standard of that scope. The revision will have a “major impact on” the industry, he said.

Prior to the conference’s official start, on Sunday, NATE will host a golf invitational. Proceeds will benefit the Tower Family Foundation, a non-profit that provides financial assistance to tower industry workers and their families in the aftermath of a work-related accident or fatality.

Additionally, Women of NATE will get in on the athletic action. On the morning of Tuesday, Feb. 20, WON will host a 5K run/walk on the grounds of the resort.