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A vital, mostly invisible undersea industry is facing a labor shortage
May 16, 2024

A vital, mostly invisible undersea industry is facing a labor shortage

Undersea cable repair crews help keep global communications running. Josh Dzieza of The Verge explains why recruiting workers is difficult.

The whole digital economy runs through hundreds of thousands of miles of communication cables no bigger than a garden hose, deep on the ocean floor.

So what happens when they break?

And they do break, about once every other day, thanks to fishing trawlers or natural disasters.

That’s when you call a repair crew of engineers, geologists, marine construction specialists and more who often spend months at sea repairing cables. This vital industry is largely invisible and facing some big challenges.

Marketplace’s Meghan McCarty Carino spoke with Josh Dzieza, feature writer and investigations editor at The Verge, who did a deep dive into the industry and those challenges.

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Josh Dzieza: I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of submarine cables, I feel like they’re so integral to the global communication system, and you hardly ever have a reason to think about it. And then I heard, this is several years ago, just a bit about the repair process. And someone mentioned that there were about two dozen ships that do this. And that seemed like a remarkably small number of ships that are tasked with propping up the global communication system. And so I wanted to find out more about it, and [that] happened to coincide with a period of change in the industry. You have a lot of big tech companies increasingly coming in and building new cable systems. We’re sort of in a cable boom. And that has not carried over to the maintenance side of things, it hasn’t gotten the same attention as sort of installing new cables. And the industry is actually struggling a bit. And so I wanted to write about the challenges facing this extremely important, and I think, largely unknown industry.

Meghan McCarty Carino: One of those challenges is the difficulty in recruiting people to this work, right?

Dzieza: Yeah, and this is a job that is learned almost entirely on the job. And so a lot of the people in this industry are, you know, have decades of experience, and are really knowledgeable. And they worry that there aren’t that many young people coming into it. That’s largely a result of the fact that most people don’t know the industry exists at all. And then the lifestyle can be a challenge too. You’re out at sea for long periods, you might have to leave home at the drop of a hat. And you’re in this kind of remote environment very, ironically, disconnected from the rest of the world. And so there’s concern that, you know, as people age out of the industry, you’re not going to have people coming in to replace them.

McCarty Carino: And are there any efforts to reverse that trend?

Dzieza: Yeah, there’s some industry organizations that are trying to do outreach to young people, sort of colleges and sort of engineering schools and remind them that, you know, this industry exists, it can be very interesting, it can be very exciting, and people should think about joining it. But I’m not sure how much traction they’re getting. It still doesn’t have the global attention that kind of more consumer-facing tech work has.

McCarty Carino: Is there a kind of a fundamental challenge of attracting investment to something like maintenance rather than, you know, all the new shiny stuff?

Dzieza: Yeah, there is. People in the maintenance industry worry that the situation is not really sustainable, that while you have money flowing into new cable systems, money is not really flowing into maintaining them. The way these cables are maintained is there are these consortiums of vessel operators that have jurisdiction over a huge stretch of ocean, and cable owners will pay into it sort of like insurance. They’ll pay an annual fee plus a day rate whenever the ship gets called out for repairs. And the ship operators complain that the cable owners are constantly driving costs down, that they’re paying less for repairs, the margins are really thin. It’s difficult to get investors to fund new ships for such a low-margin industry, and so the result of that is you have an aging repair fleet. About a quarter of the repair ships are over 40 years old, which for vessels is quite old.

McCarty Carino: Where do you see all this going?

Dzieza: This feels like one of those those systems that you don’t really think about because it works day to day, it can cope with kind of the daily entropy of cable breaks, but when there is some sort of cataclysmic event, we’ll see kind of how fragile it is. And that may cause a reevaluation of how we care for communication systems. You can see signs of that happening from kind of a geopolitical and national security standpoint. There are various government-releasing reports sort of pointing out that actually, the system seems more precarious than we’d like it to be, and maybe states should fund cable upkeep in some way. Nothing has really cohered yet, but there’s talk of that.

More on this

Josh’s article has more details about the job than we were able to get into on the podcast, including a profile of the chief engineer of a cable repair ship that was off the coast of Japan when the massive earthquake and tsunami hit there in 2011, which led to the Fukushima nuclear disaster. The crew spent 154 days repairing cables in the wake of the emergency.

Josh told us even with so many breaks, the internet largely continued to function in Japan because there’s a lot of redundancy in the system that prevents a single break from causing a full shutdown.

But that’s not always the case. A couple years ago my colleague Kimberly Adams spoke with Alan Mauldin at TeleGeography about undersea cable infrastructure after a volcanic eruption and tsunami hit Tonga in 2022, wiping out the islands’ only underwater cable connection.

It left residents without communications for about five days, and then limited service via satellite until a repair crew made it out to fix that cable.

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The team

Daisy Palacios Senior Producer
Daniel Shin Producer
Jesús Alvarado Associate Producer
Rosie Hughes Assistant Producer