Data-center training, recruitment need to change to meet staffing demands

Data-center training, recruitment need to change to meet staffing demands

As demand for data-center capacity has surged, owners and operators are struggling to keep pace on the employee side. Improved outreach, more creative approaches to recruitment, and better training and education opportunities are needed to ensure the data-centers can meet the “astronomical anticipated demand” for skilled people, said Rhonda Ascierto, vice president of research at Uptime Institute.

The research firm’s newly released Global Data Center Staffing Forecast reveals concern about the volume of open jobs and hard-to-find skills. In 2020, 50% of data-center owners and operators reported having difficulty finding qualified candidates for open jobs, compared to 38% in 2018. Meanwhile, demand for data-center staff is forecast to grow globally from about 2 million full-time employees in 2019 to nearly 2.3 million by 2025, Uptime Institute reports.

“Data centers need more people. We have a big challenge ahead of us to keep up with this scale of growth,” Ascierto said.

Adding to hiring concerns is the age of the existing data-center workforce. In the U.S. and Western Europe, in particular, many employees are reaching retirement, putting additional pressure on senior-level roles. This “silver tsunami” effect may last for the coming decade, Uptime says.

Industry watchers have suggested that technologies to manage and operate facilities more efficiently, such as automation and artificial intelligence (AI), might alleviate staffing demand, but Uptime’s data says it isn’t likely to happen in the near term for most companies. Uptime found 34% of respondents said they believe AI will reduce their data-center operations staffing in the next five years; 43% think it will reduce staffing needs eventually, but not in the next five years; and 23% said it won’t have an impact.

“There’s a lot of talk around artificial intelligence helping many industries reduce their staffing requirements. We’re not at that point,” Ascierto said.

So what can companies that are struggling to fill open positions do? One hiring obstacle that needs to be addressed is a lack of awareness of employment opportunities in the data center sector, according to webinar panelists who spoke with Ascierto about the staffing outlook.

Until the past decade, companies have been secretive about their data-center infrastructure, said Heather Dooley, global director of business operations, learning and tools at Google Data Centers, and that has hurt hiring. “We’ve kind of self-created this awareness issue, which I think is the top of the problem here. None of the general public knew about data centers.”

At the same time, few programs at universities and community colleges are dedicated to data-center education, and most people in data-center careers didn’t get their training in schools. “I don’t know anyone who set out, in their education, to join the data-center industry,” Dooley said. “There are actually very few programs in the academic spaces that focus on data centers.”

Recruiting tactics need to change, said Nancy Novak, chief innovation officer at Compass Datacenters, a Dallas-based company that builds and operates data centers. “A lot of it is about opening up and welcoming people who are diverse in all ways. The transferrable skills you see in other industries are very applicable to construction and data-center work,” Novak said.

Many of the job roles in a data center require skills beyond technology. The responsibilities of data-center infrastructure staff, for example, can span from design and construction to equipment installation, systems testing, and the ongoing operations of servers, networking, mechanical and electrical equipment. Skills transfer from other industries is becoming more common to help widen the pool of talent, Uptime has found.

“Transferrable skills are at the core of how we evaluate candidates,” Dooley said. “I’m hiring program managers, I’m hiring data analysts, I’m hiring learning and development experts. I’m hiring from disciplines that might not seem as obvious in this data-center lifecycle,” Dooley said. “The common thread across all of that is critical thinking.”

The panelists said companies need to identify candidates who may not have the exact data-center experience desired but who do have the skills to succeed. Often there’s a focus on minimum education requirements that’s holding back skilled people from applying for those jobs.

That’s not to say certain jobs don’t require a university degree – just that not all do. “This is technical infrastructure. Those with an engineering background – mechanical, electrical, civil, structural, architectural – are critically important, but what we’re seeing here is that the percentage of those jobs compared to others is quite low,” Dooley said.

Trade-school programs and certifications are one avenue to teach the fundamentals. In addition, equivalent experience, internships/traineeships, or on-the-job training can often compensate for the lack of a formal qualification.

Changing workplace culture is imperative

If the goal is to hire a more diverse range of talent, it doesn’t make sense to expect new hires to conform to how things have always been done, Novak said. “The answer is: Change how we do business, and therefore we can be more inclusive,” Novak said. “Inclusivity is proven to add to the bottom line, to add to innovation, to add up to massive improvements.”

Technology advancements can reinforce the move to a more diverse workforce. One example is the trend toward modular and prefabricated data-center components, which includes economic benefits and efficiency gains. There are also potential workforce benefits when some assembly processes can be moved from job sites to a controlled environment.

“You’re going to be able to become more inclusive, because you’re going to be in a controlled environment that allows people to have regular work hours and allows you to do better training,” Novak said. “It’s a safer work environment. And the time spent on the job site, where things are less controlled because of the environment and the elements, will be shorter. I’m 100% on board with taking things to a more modern method of assembly.”

In the big picture, academic institutions need to invest in sector-specific education, and employers need to improve on-the-job training. Uptime recommends companies offer competitive compensation packages, remain nimble, and avoid putting in place unnecessary impediments to hiring.

“We’ve got a growth, a scale, an awareness, a diversity and a graying-out issue all happening at once,” Dooley said. “My immediate reaction is that we’re behind, and it’s really going to take all of us working together to help remedy this.”