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Datacentre industry faces looming skills crisis as need to replace retiring engineers grows

With new figures suggesting the average datacentre worker is 55 years old and male, the industry opens up about what needs to be done to secure a pipeline of new talent to replace those approaching retirement age

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The datacentre market must urgently create a sustainable pipeline of new engineering talent to keep up with the growing demand for new builds and to replace workers who are reaching retirement age.

Figures from datacentre certification and training company DCProfessional suggest that the average person working in the sector is 55 years old and male, so the industry must act now to ensure it has enough skilled workers to support its future growth.

“Clearly we can’t continue to recycle people because there simply is not enough of them to go round,” said Peter Hannaford, chairman of recruitment company Datacentre People, during a panel debate at the Datacentre Dynamics Europe Zettastructure in London.

“We need to fill this funnel with new people, but the question is: where on earth are we going to find them?”

The challenge is particularly acute because it is not a case of replacing like for like, as new entrants to the market will need to be well-versed in both mechanical engineering and IT matters, said Hannaford.

“Anyone who runs datacentres knows that people who come to a datacentre are, nine times out of 10, looking to deploy cloud applications,” he said.

“So you can talk until you’re blue in the face about how low your PUE is, but what they really want to know about is connectivity and how they can use your cloud. So you need people from the datacentre companies and providers who understand IT as well.”

Datacentre diversity

The datacentre industry could do with becoming more inclusive and diverse, because there is a dearth of women and young people who work in it, the panel argued.

Jenny Hogan, operations director for EMEA at colocation provider Digital Realty, said that during her 12 years in the industry, she had become accustomed to being the only woman at the table during meetings.

“I am very familiar with sitting in a room and being the only female with around 20 male datacentre operators, whether they be designers, engineers or sales people, and there is a definite link with masculinity with this industry,” said Hogan.

“Perception is a definite turn-off for women. The problem is that, for younger girls, the tech industry seems boring and geared towards men and boys and that is not helping. It is an attitude that is going to reinforce this continued gender gap in the industry.”

Read more about the datacentre skills gap

In terms of the wider IT and engineering market, Hogan said it was not uncommon to see women leave the industry within a year of returning from maternity leave.

“It’s very much linked to being a masculine industry and it’s perceived as being inflexible and not particularly family friendly, in terms of the opportunities for women to have flexibility for maternity leave,” she said.

This was a view shared by Sylvie Le Roy, network director at the Uptime Institute and a former customer service director at colocation firm Interxion, who has first-hand experience of the challenges of recruiting in the datacentre market.

“When I was at Interxion, I was heading the support function and I had a team of 20,” she said. “It was difficult to get CVs from women in general, but also technical CVs that would match the job function that we were looking to fill.”

Building awareness

At the crux of the datacentre market’s recruitment woes is the fact that so few people know what datacentres are, what they do and the major role they play in peolle’s everyday lives, the panel agreed.

The first step to addressing this would be to get people to appreciate that every time they upload a picture on Instagram or stream a YouTube video, there is a datacentre somewhere that is enabling that to happen. This is particularly important when positioning the sector to young people, the panel said.

“I am sure that if you took a classroom full of kids and asked them what a datacentre was, they wouldn’t know, but if you asked them what Facebook was, all their hands would go up,” said Hannaford.

The university challenge

Ajay Sharman, a regional ambassador lead at tech careers service Stem Learning, said the industry was poorly promoted as a career path for engineers at university level, which was not helpful.

“We are not telling the people who are guiding engineering students through university about our industry enough, because when you talk to academics, they don’t know anything about datacentres,” he said.

“We need to do that much more at all the universities in the UK and Europe, to promote the datacentre as a career path for engineers coming through, because there are lots of jobs there and it pays well. So why wouldn’t you steer your students into that?”

The other issue is that by the time they graduate, people often already have a clear idea about which industry they want to enter, which is why Sharman, Hannaford and the other panellists agreed that the datacentre industry should be talked about more in schools as a potential career path.

But putting the onus on teachers to lead the discussions will not work, said Sharman, because children tend to respond best to hearing first-hand accounts from people about what it is like to work in an industry.  

“What changes young people’s minds about what they want to do with their future is not necessarily going along to a careers fair and doing a bag-collecting exercise – those days are gone,” he said.

“Instead, it is seeing real people doing real jobs and asking three really key questions: what do you do, how did you get to do what you do, and how much are you paid?”

Employee involvement

With that in mind, Sharman said the industry should be encouraging employees to visit schools and educate students about datacentres and the career opportunities they offer.

“There are people out there who do have the capacity, perhaps, to go into a school and change young people’s minds,” he said. Their employers should encourage them to do so because they are the ones who stand to gain the most in the long run, Sharman added.

A number of operators have successfully launched apprenticeship schemes with school leavers to fill some of the employment gaps in their organisations, said Hannaford.

From an industry perspective, this is good news and will benefit the wider talent pool in the long term, but not all operators see things that way, he said.

“A lot of people, when hiring, aren’t prepared to wait. They want people who can hit the ground running tomorrow and they focus on experience. They don’t care about the rest of it. It’s all about getting someone with 10 years’ experience and they don’t care how good they are.

Get the right people

“Instead, you should focus on getting the right people in and giving them the time to learn, because you are not going to find the 4,000 engineers the [global] industry needs to bring in over the next few years with that approach.”

Le Roy said there was a lot more the datacentre market could do to help itself as regards training and profile-raising, but it may require some cross-industry collaboration to achieve.

“We have a number of organisations such as the Uptime Institute and a large amount of knowledge that is untapped and I think we need to tap into that to create our own courses or awareness training, and promote the sector more widely,” she said.

Digital Realty’s Hogan added that although it was important to bring new people into the industry, employers should also look for ways to encourage those already in the industry to expand their skills. 

“We also need to look at what skills we can promote internally with employees who already exist within the company and how we can cross-train and encourage that as well to close the skills gap,” she said.

Inspire to innovate

It is not just a case of filling empty seats when people retire, said Hannaford. The whole industry could benefit by bringing people into the fold who, perhaps, do not fit the mould of the average datacentre worker today.

“We haven’t seen a huge amount of innovation in our industry sector since the early days,” he said. “There was a lot of innovation with power and cooling, for example, but I think people – and certainly the engineers –  have the view that if they’ve done it before, they tend to do it again and again.

“My own view is that you are never going to get innovation in this industry until we bring new people on – maybe people who have never been in a datacentre in their lives. Say to them design me a datacentre, and I’ll bet you a pound to a penny that it won’t look anything like the datacentres we see now.”

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