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Datacentre industry needs to raise its profile to address skills gaps, says panel

The veil of secrecy the datacentre industry operates under is doing it no favours when it comes to attracting talent, according to Data Centre World panel

A lack of prominent role models and poor visibility of potential career paths are two reasons for the recruitment challenges the datacentre industry continues to face, experts claim.

During a panel session at the Data Centre World conference in London, representatives from the IT recruitment, academic research, construction and server farm design communities came together to discuss industry skill shortages and recruiting more young people into the sector.

The issue is particularly pressing given the record-levels of growth the UK colocation industry is experiencing at the moment, and that research suggests sizeable portions of the existing datacentre workforce are approaching retirement age.

As is the case in the wider IT industry, a big part of why datacentre operators struggle to find people with technical skills can be traced back to the fact not enough young people are pursuing science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) subjects at school.

Panel moderator Haidee Gonslaves, associate director at construction consultancy Turner and Townsend, acknowledged that while there has been some improvement on this front in recent years, progress is patchy.

For example, the number of A-level students studying Stem subjects rose last year, but this has been accompanied by a marginal decrease in students pursuing qualifications in those areas at undergraduate level, she said.

Low student uptake has resulted in some universities closing down their engineering departments altogether, remarked Rabih Bashroush, director of the University of East London’s (UEL) Enterprise Computing Research Group.

“I know of at least four universities that have closed down the electrical engineering departments because of a lack of student numbers,” he said.

One reason why the number of students pursuing these subjects is so low, and why there are not enough young people entering the datacentre workforce, is because of a lack of representation within the mainstream media, he added.

“When kids watch TV and [see] successful role models, who are they? [It’s people on] Strictly Come Dancing, it is vloggers… that’s the reality,” he said.

“Do you watch a programme at prime-time about a datacentre engineer who becomes very successful in life, and say you want to become this person? [Because] that is what pushes people now down particular areas.”

Sophia Flucker, a director at datacentre engineering consultancy Operational Intelligence, said there are also “societal and cultural” reasons that come into play too with regard as to why the datacentre workforce is so male-dominated.

There are also, she said, issues with how engineering as a career is viewed within the UK that may put people off entering the datacentre industry, as well as related areas.

“There is continual debate about if engineers are respected in this country, and I think in other cultures they have a higher status and are seen more on a par with doctors and lawyers,” she said.

“Whereas in this country, you talk about the person who comes to fix your boiler as an engineer, and while they are an engineer and have valid skills, I think professional engineering is under-valued and possibly underpaid too.”

Are apprenticeships the answer?

The question of whether or not apprenticeship schemes could provide the datacentre industry with a fresh supply of talent was also touched on during the session.

Blaine Daws, head of datacentre and technology practice at specialist recruitment company DCL Search and Selection, said in his experience this is an avenue that few datacentre operators seem to be exploring at the moment.

“I don’t think there is any company specifically in the datacentre industry that does an apprenticeship scheme for datacentre students. I certainly haven’t seen any marketing [around it],” he said.

While there is “big demand” for younger talent in the datacentre industry, some operators have unrealistic expectations about how much experience people in this age range should have.

“What we find is, if we do find young talent, they might not have much experience in technology and the client is averse to taking them because they [want them to] understand all of these things that haven’t even existed [for that long]… and so you see a job specification saying [candidates] need 10 years’ experience in artificial intelligence, for example,” he said.  

Furthermore, the difficulties the colocation market encounter when trying to attract talent are often exacerbated by the fact that very few of them are known by name by the general public, while many of the hyperscalers – who they are competing for talent with – are.

“The hyperscalers, such as Microsoft and Google, are household names, and it’s much easier for them [to attract candidates] and they are still struggling to fill positions because of the lack of Stem candidates,” said Bashroush.

The veil of secrecy the datacentre industry operates under does not help either, said UEL’s Bashroush. “The datacentre industry has historically been a low-profile industry… we need a collective effort from the industry to raise the profile of it,” he added.

Read more about datacentre skills gaps

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