Addressing the workforce challenge in maintaining legacy SDH networks

Thanks to an aging workforce, the telco industry is dealing with the significant challenge of maintenance and operation of legacy Synchronous Digital Hierarchy (SDH) networks. SDH networks, introduced in the 1990s were revolutionary, providing exceptional traffic path availability through advanced management, reporting, and protection mechanisms. However, as these networks transition to legacy status, the expertise required to maintain them is dwindling due to the retirement of the skilled engineers who know them best, and the lack of new training programs.

The Aging Workforce

Many of the engineers who pioneered and maintained SDH networks are now reaching retirement age – these experienced professionals have a deep understanding of SDH technology, having been trained extensively during its peak use years. But as they retire the industry faces a significant knowledge gap as new engineers entering the field are more likely to be trained in modern digital technologies such as cloud computing and 5G, rather than SDH. This presents problems as the specialised knowledge required to diagnose and repair SDH networks is becoming scarce, and the operational training programs for SDH have mostly been discontinued, making it challenging to train new recruits.

The Risk of Skills Shortage

The potential consequences of this skills shortage are worrying – SDH networks although robust, require regular maintenance and repairs to ensure continued high availability – keeping existing networks working until they can be upgraded is vital. Failure to maintain these networks can lead to a risk of significant traffic disruptions – for example, an STM-64 interface carrying close to 10 Gbit/s of traffic could suffer catastrophic failures if not properly managed. The advanced nature of SDH networks means that troubleshooting and repairs often require a high level of expertise – intricate alarm systems, synchronisation requirements, and complex node configurations are not easily mastered without the right experience and training. However, as the workforce ages and retires, the remaining staff may not have the depth of knowledge to manage these complexities effectively and organisations must look for new solutions.

Potential Solutions

Addressing the workforce challenge requires a multi-faceted approach.

  • Partnerships with expert consultants. One solution is to form partnerships with specialist companies that offer support and repair services for legacy networks. These companies often employ engineers with the necessary expertise and can provide the deep technical knowledge required to maintain and eventually decommission SDH networks in a controlled manner. By outsourcing some aspects of network maintenance, operators can ensure that their networks remain operational without overburdening their in-house teams.
  • Knowledge Retention and Transfer. It’s crucial to retain the knowledge of experienced engineers before they retire. This can be achieved through mentoring programs where veteran engineers train newer staff. Documenting procedures, troubleshooting guides, and operational knowledge in a comprehensive and accessible manner can also help bridge the knowledge gap. Companies should prioritise creating detailed manuals and training materials based on the expertise of their retiring workforce.
  • Training Programs and Upskilling. Reviving training programs for SDH technology, even on a limited scale, can help ensure that new engineers gain the necessary skills. This can be done through in-house training sessions, online courses, or collaboration with educational institutions. Offering incentives for current employees to learn and certify in SDH maintenance can also be beneficial – upskilling programs can be designed to make the learning process more appealing and aligned with career growth opportunities.
  • Use of modern tools. Using modern diagnostic and management tools can aid less experienced engineers in maintaining SDH networks. Advanced software tools that offer user-friendly interfaces and automated diagnostic capabilities can reduce the reliance on deep technical expertise. By integrating these tools into the network management processes, companies can empower their existing staff to handle maintenance tasks more efficiently.
  • Strategic Recruitment. Focusing recruitment efforts on attracting talent with an ability to learn legacy systems can also be part of the solution. Personnel with a strong foundation in telco principles can be trained in SDH specifics. Highlighting the critical role of SDH networks in supporting essential services, such as emergency communications and public utilities, can help attract individuals who are motivated by the importance of maintaining this infrastructure.
  • Succession Planning. Companies should develop robust succession plans that identify and prepare potential candidates to take over key roles as senior engineers retire. This involves not only technical training but also leadership development to ensure a smooth transition of responsibilities.

The challenge of maintaining legacy SDH networks in the face of an aging workforce is significant but not insurmountable – operators can continue to support these critical networks by planning for the risks. Ensuring the operational integrity of SDH networks is not just about preserving technology, it’s about maintaining the infrastructure that supports vital services for society. Proactive measures today can help safeguard network reliability and service quality for years to come. If you’d like to talk to us about supporting your organisation to maintain a legacy SDH network, contact

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