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A Bridge Too Far? Addressing the data centre talent gap

Tue 23 May 2023

In this opinion piece, James Rix takes on the burgeoning talent gap problem in the data centre industry. He navigates through the terrain of employee retention, continuous training, diversity, and the looming ‘silver tsunami’ of retiring professionals. Explore these insights to understand how we can fortify the data centre industry’s workforce and promote sustainable growth.

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The data centre talent gap is widening, with forecasts by Uptime Institute revealing that global staff requirements in data centres will reach 2.3 million by 2025, but half of the world’s engineering staff are expected to retire around the same time.

Research by Go1 shows the length of time people stay in jobs is decreasing. Two in five employees could be looking to move on within a year or two, with the biggest factors cited as career advancement, lack of available career prospects, poor work-life balance, and company culture.

The research from last year looked at data from 2,000 workers who have changed jobs at least once in their career, finding that this turnover could cost the UK economy up to £17 billion.

The current data centre talent gap

For the last ten years there has been a regular ‘wringing of hands’ in conference sessions bemoaning the lack of data centre talent within the industry, globally. Given the aforementioned statistics do we have a right to be worried?

Of course we do, however, the data centre industry is often its own worst enemy in scoring own goals. Why is that?

Adverts ask for several years’ worth of industry specific experience and numerous qualifications, but show no career path from the position advertised to where a person can progress.

Countless rounds of interviews, and on top of this are the infamous ‘Non-Disclosure Agreements’ which say you can work here, but you cannot tell anyone about it. It does make you wonder how the advert got out there in the first place. And if current employees are the best advert for future employees, how will you know if I cannoy tell you about it? Does this help to foster a toxic environment? This, I believe, is a problem.

How can you increase the opportunities to address the data centre skills shortage?

Look at retaining those that are already with your company. The ability to retain staff is vital, or else the knowledge will walk out the door, either as part of the impending ‘silver tsunami’ of retiring talent or people moving onto other opportunities.

If people are going to move for career advancement, consider what can be done for them in their current organisation.

Can further data centre training or educational opportunities be given? As the data centre industry moves very quickly, training needs to keep pace with this.

Consider also how diverse is your organisation. Historically, this industry has been male dominated. But with more flexible working opportunities now available, will you be able to attract a wider pool of talent?

Think about those returning to work from full-time parenting to a possible part-time or job-share arrangement. These individuals have built up many skills outside of the data centre, including life skills and even household management abilities that cannot be taught, but are strategies that can be very applicable to the data centre work environment.

Leveraging data centre apprenticeships

Much is talked about in respect of data centre apprenticeships, although the argument may be around semantics. Are these now ‘careerships’?

The historic thought of being apprenticed to a craft still pervades the industry, and while some will cry that this is just ‘spin’, it shows that this is a career in professional services rather than an ‘on-the-tools’ trade.

Often, apprentices are taken on as ‘fixed term’ or ‘temporary’ employees. This does not give security of tenure or add value to the training being given. I would recommend marking all apprentices as ‘full-time’ employees with no ‘expiration date’, as we do at Arcadis. This gives a greater sense of job security, enables the ability to step onto the property ladder, and values the training that apprentices have had both on the job and at their training establishment.

The ability to upskill people is also important. But undertaking this journey at your own pace and on the path most beneficial for you is vital. At work, there are many valuable skills we need to learn to stay relevant, including public speaking or even TikTok marketing. It is important as an employer to make learning opportunities available through courses, for example.

What does this do for your people if you put all this in place? It creates a sense of belonging. There is also a ‘stickiness’ factor that can help you retain staff.

But how much does this apply to the data centre industry?

A call to action: data centre training and education

Once you create a learning environment, the addition of opportunities becomes easier, and people will be more motivated to learn.

Being able to showcase the additional learning inside the data centre industry becomes important. It is not cheap, and the risk of losing staff once they have been trained remains. But if you bemoan the lack of trained staff whilst not training your own, you will become a self-fulfilling prophecy and part of the problem.

Places like the National Data Centre Academy are to be applauded in creating a ‘hands on’ learning environment that provides practical experience alongside classroom instruction.

Data Centre training and education, as well as data centre apprenticeships or ‘careerships’, are all important and we need to make the opportunities available. If not, we are again part of the problem. Organisations need to embrace these facilities and make the best use possible of them.

About the Author

James Rix is the Project Director & Accredited Sustainability Advisor at Arcadis. He has been building the homes where the internet lives since 2007, where he first started working in data centres in Southeast Asia. Since then, he has been involved in project managing data centre projects in 14 different countries and over 3 continents. The projects have been green field, brown field, refurbishments, white space fit-out, migrations and closure.

James is experienced in facilities from sever rooms up to hyperscale campus. Although primarily a building engineer within civil and structural engineering, he is knowledgeable across electrical, mechanical and IT infrastructure and the deployment of these into data centres globally.

He writes and speaks extensively about the data centre industry at events around the world, including CloserStill Media’s Data Centre World. In addition, he leads the Arcadis Global Data Centre & Mission Critical Community of Practice, which acts as an internal knowledge hub with a membership of 250 Arcadians from around the world. He is passionate about emerging talent in the industry, sustainable construction and practical roads to Net Zero.

If you have an opinion you’d like to share, please contact our Editor, Stuart Crowley, at [email protected].

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