Having been in the Wireless Telecom Industry for over 20 years, I’ve seen the industry grow and evolve in many ways.
We went from brick phones to flip phones to smart phones.
Even how you choose your wireless carrier has changed over the years.
There have also been significant changes in the wireless telecom jobs that support the wireless infrastructure development niche (i.e. cell tower development and modification business).
In this article I’ll discuss the various telecom wireless job titles, key attributes and requirements for success in those roles, and how you may progress through these jobs in your wireless telecom career.
These roles are specifically focused on the wireless infrastructure development niche (particularly cell site program and project management (project manager, project coordinator), real estate acquisition and the modification of those rights (site acquisition specialist, site acquisition manager, zoning manager), and construction (construction manager). I do not delve into the RF Engineering or associated sub-specialties.
Those include large “Turf” Consultants (like MasTec, Bechtel, Black & Veatch, Goodman Networks, Ericsson) as well as the mom and pop consultants and contractors who often supply the boots-on-the-ground services (site acquisition, land use, construction, environmental compliance, A&E, etc.)
What are the wireless telecom jobs?
Although the job titles supporting the building of cell towers haven’t changed much.
- Project Manager
- Site Acquisition Specialist
- Zoning Manager
- Project Coordinator
- Construction Manager
The meaning of them has changed quite a bit since the late 1990’s as the industry has evolved.
The project manager role has been largely consistent although there is some variation here. Typically they are heavily focused on planning and managing the project’s key deliverable milestones and making sure the project stays on track with client expectations.
This means attending weekly deployment meetings, ensuring certain procedures are followed, and confirming deliverables.
Some variation comes with financial accountability for the project. As project margins have become leaner and leaner, there has been an increased focus on ensuring you hit your target margins for the project (even though that is mostly accounted for by hitting the milestones when due – and those are based on the initial project plan).
The project manager is the key communicator with the client and needs to communicate well via email, phone and in person.
They also need to be able to negotiate effectively to ensure the project stays under budget.
They typically need to have good Microsoft Excel skills. This includes being proficient at sorting and filtering data, doing vlookups to align and transfer data between spreadsheets.
Site Acquisition Specialist
In the past this was someone with a commercial real estate or law background and often needed a real estate license. They were responsible for locating acceptable cell site locations (raw land, commercial buildings, existing towers, water tanks, etc.) and then negotiating lease agreements with property owners and sometimes crossed over into the land use planning role (or converted the feedback from their Zoning Manager) for site selection and permitting with the local jurisdiction.
Over time as more and more towers have been built, the Site Acquisition Specialist’s role has radically evolved.
Where in the past they were negotiating new leases for new towers, now they are collocating on existing towers. And these towers are often owned by tower companies – such as Crown Castle and American Tower.
As such, the skill set has evolved from one of lease and location negotiation to one of a more administrative function – filling out collocation applications and following up.
Another key element that has changed is the level of technical knowledge needed and attention to detail required.
This is because the RFDS (Radio Frequency Data Sheet) has become a much more important element in getting an installation done correctly the first time.
Site Acquisition Specialists have to convert the information in an RFDS into a collocation application. And in many cases they have to compare an RFDS to the collocation application, construction or zoning drawings, structural analysis, and pictures to make sure all the data is lining up and accurate.
Along with this required attention to detail, it is also less necessary to have a Site Acquisition Specialist in a market to be successful. If they are just dealing with collocations, and have a zoning manager handling the zoning and building permit components, they can be at a centralized hub location, or most anywhere.
So where do the best Site Acquisition Specialists come from these days?
- Other Companies – someone with site acq experience is far ahead of someone who needs to be trained from scratch. However, some experienced site acqs have bad habits or have burned bridges in the past so you have to be careful when hiring someone like that. There you want to check references or others in the industry who have crossed paths. Very few people in this small industry can fly completely under the radar. They leave tracks. And those will tell a hiring manager the rest of the story that may not show up on a resume.
- Real Estate Agents – someone with a real estate background – whether commercial leasing, property management, or residential real estate – often have the ability to read and understand the various documents involved.
- Lawyers and Law Graduates – lawyers have the contracts understanding and are typically diligent enough to handle the complexities and detail-oriented nature of Site Acquisition. And often lawyers find out after getting into law practices that they don’t enjoy the work and become available to our industry.
Zoning can often be combined with the Site Acquisition Specialist role. But where there is a big enough company or the Site Acquisition Specialists are not strong enough in the land use field, companies will often hire a Zoning Manager to fill that void.
The Zoning Manager is focused on understanding the rules and regulations (ordinances) of each jurisdiction they deal with. This includes.
- Copies of ordinances for each jurisdiction
- Web addresses for ordinances, applications, zoning maps, assessor maps, etc.
- Contact information for the planners, Planning Director, and building department
They also need to be good at analyzing codes and understanding both what is in an ordinance and what limitations or opportunities lie in what isn’t included.
Zoning Managers stay current on ordinance updates and often will work with jurisdictions on their code re-writes.
Zoning Managers often have a land use planning bachelors degree or masters degree. Sometimes attorneys will become Zoning Managers as well if they have a particular interest or background in that arena.
Typically Zoning is a big issue on new site builds. For modifications/overlays the requirements are much more straightforward and can often be handled by the Site Acquisition Specialist without much or any Zoning Manager oversight.
Also certain Federal Telecommunication Act guidelines will affect application and processing requirements and timelines. Zoning Managers should be current on those requirements and ensure they are being met by the site development team.
This position is often that backbone of the daily operation. Whether you are on a “Turf” or “Program” based project, where many of the services are outsourced to specialty consultants, or a direct contact with the carrier and self-performing all the duties in house, the Project Coordinator is an important element of the operation.
The Project Coordinator typically does all the heavy lifting. This means knocking out the following key items:
- Pulling documents from client databases (i.e. leases, permits, drawings, structurals, RFDS’s, etc.)
- Uploading completed deliverables to client databases
- Routing documents for review and approval
- Handling financial elements like PO’s and invoicing
- Updating trackers or preparing reports
- Preparing closeout documentation
Good Project Coordinators have a detail orientation. They can handle spreadsheets well. They may also be able to do mail merges in Microsoft Word for sending out mass mailings for jurisdictional approvals or landlord consents.
They can handle large volumes of work and need to be reliable.
They often work closely with the Project Manager.
They sometimes are used in quasi-Project Manager roles due to their understanding of the process of wireless system development and the milestones and deliverable needed.
Good Project Coordinators can come from almost anywhere. Often referrals from other project team members is the best source.
The Construction Manager is different from a Tower Supervisor or Tower Crew Member. They often come through those ranks or from another general construction background.
The focus of the construction manager has evolved from one of interpreting drawings, bidding construction jobs, and punch walking sites.
Today’s Construction Manager, especially in the “Turf” or program-focused world is much more extensive and requires a larger skill-set. This includes.
- Accurately interpreting RFDS’s
- Reading and redlining construction drawings
- Taking good pictures of the site to ensure adequate information for site scoping
- Understanding Turf Drivers or the various build elements and costs required
- Able to manage a profit and loss statement at the job/site level
- Can negotiate scope items with the client or general contractor/crew
- Multi-tasks under short duration intense situations
- Interpret and communicate network related elements with RF Engineers and GC’s
- Track, review, and deliver construction deliverables to client or upload to client databases
- Attend deployment meetings and comment on construction status at the site level
As you can see, this is a significant portion of the program. Although site acquisition elements may take 70-80% of the project schedule, construction managers address elements through both the site acquisition process and the construction process. And when it gets to construction, days and hours all matter and communication is paramount.
Probably one of the biggest strengths I’ve seen in really good Construction Managers are the following.
- Excellent understanding of the build elements
- Can interpret the build elements into a financial driver set
- Communicates well with client and team members (and communicates often so not one is guessing on construction progress)
- Follows up effectively and often
- Sets good expectations with the GC/crew for deliverables and schedule
- Able to handle a good workload
- Good with spreadsheets
Here’s an interesting article about someone transitioning into a wireless telecom construction job from the military. Another way people get into this business.
Are you a tower hand ready to move into a tower supervisor role? Or a tower supervisor looking to become a full-fledged construction manager or construction project manager? Find out if you’re ready to take the next step.
Your Future In Wireless
So if you’re in one of these roles today or are thinking about getting into the Wireless Telecommunications Industry supporting the system development/cell site construction and modification work, understand what these roles are and where you might fit.
Moving up the ladder in this business can sometime happen quickly with good career management. And other times it can be frustrating due to the fact that many of the roles do not have a series of progressions that allow you to move up in an organization.
Typically the easiest transitions are from Site Acquisition Specialist or Zoning Manager or Construction Manager to Project Manager. I’ve seen situations where a Real Estate (Site Acq or Zoning) Management background is more effective in certain Project Manager roles and other times a Construction background is better. It often depends on the project type and client contact’s background. Both can be successful.
The Project Coordinator progression to Project Manager or either of the other three specialties is a little dicier since they often have the telecom specific knowledge but not the detailed educational background that creates the depth of knowledge and that “X-factor” that helps people be successful when challenged (and in this industry everyone is challenged since it is typically a project and consultant based relationship).
Want to know how hiring managers look at candidates and how to better progress to that next step in your career? Here’s how to get that job…and not suck.
Want to improve your Project Management skills in the real world of telecom? Find out the truth here.
Are you a hiring manager that wants to hire better people? Check out this unusual secret discovered in their credit score.
For help finding your next wireless telecom job, contact me now.