Data centre skill shortages: a perfect storm of complex issues

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    Research has highlighted the need for data centres to plug the skills gap in power management and other key technical areas. CNet Training’s Dr Terri Simpkin looks at the underlying issues and warns that ‘skills wastage’ is a major problem.

    There have been many recent data centre-related incidents that have raised public awareness of the centrality of mission critical infrastructure. While most people outside of the sector have little understanding of what a data centre actually is or how it underpins much of their day-to-day activity, when something goes horribly wrong the focus is squarely on the importance of ‘keeping the lights on’.

    However, it is becoming increasingly obvious that the role of humans in the operation of the data centre is still an operational imperative regardless of the advances in automation of management tasks across the sector. So too, is the creeping fear that widely reported skills shortages are adding an extra element of complexity to the mismatch between rampant technical advances and sector growth and development of adequate organisational capability to keep up.

    It is no secret that the data centre sector has been lamenting the lack of readily skilled and motivated staff; and for good reason. It is well recorded that the engineering sectors including IT, infrastructure and power are struggling to establish sufficient numbers of qualified engineers due to a significant shortfall of skills in specialist areas.

    Of course, this is not just the case in the data centre sector, but across all industrial sectors. From construction to software, from mechanical to artificial intelligence, organisations are rallying a call for more exposure in schools, gender diversity and better university education to address graduate skills shortfalls. All industries are in the market actively shaking the ‘magical candidate tree’ to attract the brightest and best to their sectors.

    Sadly, the data centre sector is well behind the curve and is coming to the party about a decade too late. And it is paying the price. A recent survey commissioned by Eaton suggests that a skills shortage in power management “is causing a lack of confidence in data centre resilience, as well as the ability to respond effectively to power-related incidents”. The report suggests skills of those working inside data centres were becoming outdated as technology develops to better manage power in particular. But this is indicative of a broader suite of issues that are contributing to a perfect storm of technical advances, outmoded traditional education models, shifts in business approaches and demographic pressures. In short, no single response is going to adequately address this issue.

    Skills shortages: a complicated construct

    Reports such as the Eaton survey illustrate clearly that a skills shortage exists. There are countless reports suggesting the same. Research by the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) also suggests that the education system will struggle to keep up with the demand for skilled employees. This is exacerbated by a reported increase in recruitment in growth sectors such as aerospace, communications, defence and transport. Of course, the data centre sector should position itself in this list too as growth continues globally.

    However, it is not just a numbers game. While it is true that there are simply not enough people to fill the gaps available, what is more worrying is the issue of skills wastage; and it is particularly so in the data centre sector.

    While people are undertaking traditional university education to become qualified and able to fill graduate positions, the IET’s report identifies a well-repeated lament that graduate capabilities are not matched to industry need. The report suggests that 62% of employers indicate that graduates expecting to take up IT, engineering or other technical roles do not meet reasonable expectations of employers. School leavers/apprentices (53%) and post graduates (45%) are also missing the mark.

    What does this mean in reality? Time, effort, energy and money are being spent on individuals only to have their skills deemed inappropriate or inadequate for the workplace. Motivated, capable and interested people are putting effort into courses only to fall at the most important hurdle – employment.

    What the sector needs then, is not more graduates but more appropriately designed, delivered and dynamic forms of education that bridge the divide between education and industry. Of course, this must continue on into the workplace with appropriately responsive professional development agendas. No one-size-fits-all university or vocational degree is going to replicate a well-crafted, on-the-job development programme.

    Non-traditional forms of training and education such as degree apprenticeships largely remain a mystery despite a perfect opportunity for the data centre sector to get in on the ground floor of creating higher education courses that actually meet the sector needs. The University Technical College (UTC) movement is a growing and highly dynamic mechanism to get school leavers ready for the rapidly advancing technical demands of a career in data centres by working on real projects while finalising their secondary schooling.

    This is no simple classroom-based project approach. It is an immersive, commercially oriented approach to getting talented secondary students aware of what’s needed for the world of work in a demanding technical occupation. And yet, few employers are aware of how to get involved and fewer make an investment to secure a future pipeline of work ready employees through this vehicle.

    Gender agenda

    The gender agenda is, of course, high profile but still, only around 9% of science, technology, engineering and maths occupations are filled by women. Again, it is not about training or education. A smaller pool of women enters into technical education and even fewer end up in the occupation for which they trained. About half of graduates end up in science, technology, engineering, and math (Stem) occupations for which they trained and this attrition continues throughout a career lifecycle.

    Getting women is one challenge; keeping them is another. Diversity and inclusion initiatives are largely failing industry and a disruptive shift in embedded and underpinning culture is needed but not necessarily palatable. The nerdy, blokey image (or less attractive, ‘pale, stale and male’) is not appropriate and it should be challenged by a raft of policy, cultural and managerial approaches that better accommodate men, women and other non-traditional workers including those from low socio-economic backgrounds.

    Overall, while the conversation is about skills shortages in a multitude of different occupations from power engineering to cabling to software innovation, the underpinning issues have little to do with numbers of people with a certain suite of skills. So too, we need to consider that occupational decision making starts before children start school and they begin divesting choices from early primary school. Exposure to the sector and its opportunities has to begin around the age of seven and continue through school.

    The urgency of broadly based initiatives pitched at making sure that paths into the data centre sector are recognised is made all the more imperative.

    However, there is a long queue of other sectors already in schools and generating a good deal of career interest. Simply put, the data centre sector is doing too little, too late in a very crowded market.

    The whole picture needs to be examined and underpinning issues addressed at the core if the data centre sector as well as peripheral industries such as communications, facilities management, IT and engineering are to diminish the risk to operations and limit critical infrastructure failures.

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