The data centre industry needs to promote the education of their staff, move away from a small niche of specialists, and promote cross-disciplinary working through knowledge, writes Robert Tozer
Tackling the data centre skills gap
Fri 11 Jan 2019 | Robert Tozer
The data centre skills gap refers to both the knowledge gap (lack of training and experience) and the numbers gap (lack of people to fill positions). This issue has been widely reported by industry.
Last year the likes of Google, Microsoft and Uber all warned about a data centre skills shortage, and according to a ComputerWeekly report the data centre industry faces a looming skills crisis as the need to replace retiring engineers grows. 451 Research have also urged companies to train up existing staff to plug the skills gap. There are around 700,000 people working in the data centre industry worldwide (UK 50,000): but the skills gap is very much a global issue and the gap is huge.
Learning the ropes
The data centre industry employs a multitude of quite different skills mainly grouped into IT and M&E infrastructure areas. However, data centres are not on the curriculum of our educational institutions, with very few exceptions. In addition, IT technology has been changing for the last decades and M&E designs have been through major design improvements with respect to their efficiencies and load densities.
Air management has become a science in its own right. Physical containment, moving away from raised floor air distribution, use of free cooling in all climates and in many cases zero refrigeration are the current industry norm today.
Electrical distribution systems utilise block redundant systems to reduce costs, but this needs proper understanding. Likewise, with IT virtualisation. In addition to all of these technology changes, there has been a relentless exponential market growth of IT services, all of which require more services from data centres.
TechUK reports how data centres underpin and enable the digital economy and that data centres are the only geographical hook connecting the digital economy to a physical location, and generate multiple levels of economic activity.
Unfortunately, the educational system has not been able to keep up with the exponential growth of technology and market penetration, now strongly linked to the economy.
Risk of failure
If the gap is not plugged, there will be (though we might not necessarily see) a gradual increase in loss of service or catastrophic failures, which will be higher than the market growth – as more businesses depend on IT, the business impact will also be high.
This will probably lead to a higher convergence to hyperscale operators, as they offer lower costs and risks by specialising in service delivery and attracting the right skills. Other implications are higher energy wasted through improper operations, which will lead to higher operational costs.
However, this is not as evident as when there is a catastrophic failure. We must also bear in mind that savings made by lack of investment in the skills gap will drive up salaries.
The damages are already being felt as vacancies are not being filled to the originally required skills and experience. Gradually, the workforce ends up matching what is available on the market rather than what is required. This is a gradual creep which is only getting worse.
The skills gap contributes to errors and the wrong decisions, which also places stress on organisations, particularly management. This together with financial and business justifications has contributed to the growth of hyperscale outsourcing.
What can be done
The skills gap is not only the shortcoming of knowledge, but also the shortage of people in the data centre industry. So, another step is to encourage more younger people into this industry and to increase the awareness of how data centres are pivotal to the ever-expanding business of Information Technology.
A very promising development has been the STEM Ambassadors who are volunteers from a wide range of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) related jobs across the UK. They are an important and exciting free of charge resource for teachers and others engaging with young people inside and out of the classroom. The biggest advantage is that it works with children from an early stage and addresses core biases; the plan is long term.
The Government also set up a new apprenticeship scheme for which organisations are taxed via the apprenticeship levy. Organisations are able to offset training costs to this levy providing it is an approved apprenticeship scheme. This requires industry to create the Trailblazer and commit to being early adopters of the new apprenticeship standards.
The educational institution would then have to set up their course in compliance with the Trailblazer requirements. The time and effort to set this up is considerable to say the least, resulting in no schemes directly related to data centres.
There are a handful of universities that offer data centre programmes, but many of these are existing courses where some additions relating to data centres have been added.
Definition: Trailblazers develop the standards for their relevant occupation themselves. This means that the standards are related to what is needed in the workforce and what skills an apprentice will need to be capable and qualified in that future role.
Industry really needs a lot more, but educational institutions do not have the resources to set these up. There are some success stories where organisations have partnered with educational institutions to set up data centre courses, but more are needed. In the meantime organisations set up their in-house training schemes, some with serious investment and others as a quick fix to plug the gap.
The data centre industry is very fortunate as it is a growing industry with a promising future. There is however a missed opportunity regarding people developing their maximum potential, which in turn could benefit the data centre industry. The data centre industry needs to promote the education of their staff, move away from a small niche of specialists, and promote cross-disciplinary working through knowledge.
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Robert will be speaking at Techerati’s forthcoming Data Centre World event, taking place on 12th and 13th March 2019 at London’s ExCeL Centre. To hear from Robert and other data centre experts from around the world, register today for your FREE ticket.
Title: Tackling the data centre skills gap