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Catch-22: Rapid data centre growth colliding with ageing workforce

03 Sep 18

Article by Schneider Electric Operation Services general manager Tony DeSpirito

The IT industry as a whole is facing a shortage of skilled workers and the data center segment is no exception. No quick fix is available to correct the problem, either.

It’ll take creative outreach to new groups of potential workers and training; lots and lots of training.

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but there’s really no sugar-coating the situation. Joe Kava, VP of data centers for Google, summed it up nicely in a keynote address at the recent Data Center World conference, saying, “The greatest threat we’re facing is the race for talent.”

Even Google has trouble staffing data centers​

A study last year by TEKsystems highlighted the issue, with 81% of the IT leaders surveyed saying it was difficult to find quality candidates for IT jobs. Nearly 50% of leaders with open positions didn’t expect they would fill them in the desired timeframe.

There’s reason to believe the situation is even worse for companies looking to hire data center infrastructure staff for a simple reason: the field is currently dominated by men who are nearing retirement age.

“The industry today is predominantly men,” Kava said in his keynote. “Even my own organization are majority men: white men, middle-aged white men.”

Meanwhile, as Data Center Knowledge reports: “IDC predicts that worldwide public cloud services and infrastructure spending will reach $160 billion this year, up 23 percent from 2017. Gartner says total cloud services revenue will increase by 87 percent between 2016 and 2020, reaching $411.4 billion.”

So, we’ve got an aging pool of talent coupled with rapid growth in data center demand. Clearly, we need a new approach to address the issue.

Diversity and education are keys to a solution

Diversity is clearly one avenue, starting with getting more women into the field. This will be a long-term endeavor, however, based on current statistics. The National Girls Collaborative Project, in a report on girls and women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), found:

  • 22.7% of chemical engineers are women
  • 17.5% of civil, architectural, and sanitary engineers are women
  • 17.1% of industrial engineers are women
  • 10.7% of electrical or computer hardware engineers are women
  • 7.9% of mechanical engineers are women

Data center infrastructure staff can come from any one of those fields, but we’re effectively eliminating nearly half of the potential workforce from the start because not enough women enter the fields.

Education is another area, and we’re starting to see some movement there. In a guest post for CIO.com, Nancy Novak, Compass Datacenters’ SVP of Construction, says Southern Methodist University (SMU) has established a post-graduate degree program in the data center discipline, Marist University has a Bachelor’s Degree in data center science and Global Skills X-change Corporation (GSX) recently launched a Certified Mission Critical Operator (CMCO) program.

I also happen to know that Northern Virginia Community College this fall will launch a Data Center Operations (DCO) specialization of its Engineering Technology associate’s degree.

Schneider Electric has trained 1,500 data center techs

That’s all good news, and hopefully more schools will follow suit. But let’s face it, it’ll be at least two years before these programs really begin bearing fruit.

I can speak from experience in saying that because Schneider Electric has long offered its own training program for the data center personnel who operate data centers for our customers around the globe.

We target folks who already have experience in a relevant area – electrical or mechanical engineering, fire suppression, generator specialist or the like. They then enter an ongoing training program that focuses on continuous improvement and associated certifications.

Eventually they reach Critical Environment Technician (CET) Level 3 status, meaning they are subject matter experts (SME) in all relevant disciplines.

We’ve trained at least 1,500 CETs by now, so we’ve gotten pretty good at it, if I do say so myself. The really tricky part is recruiting candidates to enter the program. For that, we look to various sources, including folks who are leaving the military, technical schools, lots of job fairs and plenty of word of mouth.

In fact, we’re constantly in recruitment mode, because we need to ensure that when one of our technicians gets promoted (or, rarely, leaves for another organization), we can quickly fill that position.

Plus, like everyone in the data center business, we have to prepare for the rapid growth the industry is seeing and quickly execute when a customer decides to out-task data center operations to us.