Mind the skills gap: the human element in data centre resilience

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    There is a lot of talk of skills gaps within the data centre sector, but there is also a need to attract ‘new blood’. So where will the sector find the talent pool it needs? Louise Frampton reports

    The human element within the data centre sector is a major issue in relation to risk, according to the Uptime Institute. Analysis of downtime incidents, in 2017, revealed at least 38% could be traced back to human error, including the two highest profile downtime incidents: AWS and British Airways.

    Uptime Institute went on to state that ‘technician error’, on closer inspection, usually stems from ‘management failure’. Among the management shortcomings identified was a lack of priority given to training. Tackling skills gaps and improving training in the data centre sector is key to increasing resilience and preventing costly failures.

    “The key concerns for data centres are around risk and energy. If the data centre has an outage, you are talking about tens of millions of pounds,” comments Professor Robert Tozer, a director at Operational Intelligence and visiting professor at London Southbank University. He warns that the skills shortage cannot be ignored: “The growth in data centres in the UK alone is around 10-15% year on year. Around 40,000 people work in data centres in the UK. The industry is growing at a rapid rate, but there is a problem; academia is producing professionals, each with a specialisation – in mechanical engineering, electrical engineering or IT – yet these individuals have no idea of the context of the data centre. People are being educated in silos,” he says. 

    451 Research has further warned of a looming skills shortage in the sector. A survey carried out by the organisation last year found more than 70% of IT organisations have trouble recruiting candidates for data centre and facilities roles. Respondents highlighted the most common reasons, which included a lack of skills and experience among applicants.

    Industry views

    Vinny Vaghani, operations and commercial manager with UK colocation company IP House, warns the skills shortage in the data centre industry will prove a challenge for many businesses in the coming years, unless addressed quickly. 

    “Research has revealed that the most experienced professionals tend to be males of a senior age group, and while experience is highly valued in the industry, creating a diverse and enthusiastic talent pool for data centre operators to harness will be crucial as the ageing population of facility operators and IT experts begin to leave their roles,” he says.

    “One thing remains clear: it will be key for this new and dynamic community to build their skills alongside the current experts, in order to understand fundamental elements of the industry, while applying modern technologies and new processes to adapt and further the advancements being made – both from an engineering and a service perspective. 

    “A set of industry-accredited training, certification or mentor schemes would provide data centre owners and operators with a well-informed and efficient recruitment process, which could work well to complement many of the diverse graduate programmes we see today, such as those by critical infrastructure vendors.”

    John McGee, managing director of data centre and critical infrastructure specialist Durata, warns that industry, government and education must align or we will continue to witness a growing skills gap in our market. “There is a major obstacle to the success of UK business, and that is the fact that industry allowed successive governments to abandon a highly effective apprenticeship system, with no suitable replacement,” he says. 

    “My experience in the technical and technology industry is that few university graduates join the employment market with the practical experience necessary to be effective out of the blocks. Critical power infrastructure environments are a highly skilled and essential element to any enterprise and data centre and we need technically competent starters who understand that the quality of their work is crucial to the problem-free operation of technology businesses.” 

    Grow your own

    Some businesses within the data centre sector have taken to growing their own talent. Equinix, for example, has established an apprenticeship programme to address the skills gap and has seen all 15 graduates accept positions within the organisation. 

    Equinix managing director Russell Poole says: “I look at it as growing a youth team. From an educational perspective, it was obvious to us that the UK government had decided to maximise the number of people going to university. A lot of people were coming out having had a great time, with a degree of no use to them or any industry, while having accumulated a large amount of debt. We wanted to offer something for those who wanted to take a different, more vocational path, and build a career outside of that academic framework. Legislation now means that a certain amount of payroll has to be spent on apprenticeships and we are ahead of this.”

    Gender gap

    IP House’s Vaghani adds the UK has failed to address the gender imbalance within both the IT and data centre sectors, and there is a need to focus on attracting more women to the industry to help tackle the skills gap. “It is our belief that those currently working within the sector should be given the opportunity to lead teams in senior roles that will provide future generations of technology professionals with the inspiration to focus and achieve board level careers,” he says.

    Equinix’s Poole also believes there is further work to be done to attract more women into the sector: “Our apprenticeship scheme is currently all boys; we have had just one female applicant in the whole five years. I would like to find a way of getting more girls interested in this as a career. It feels like a missed opportunity.” 

    Poole agrees with Vaghani that there is a need for more female role models in the industry: “In our company, we have an equal gender mix in the non-technical areas of the business, yet engineering and technical is almost 100% male,” he comments, adding: “I think there is a misconception that engineering is a ‘dirty world’, when in fact the data centre is a pleasant working environment. 

    “We are a progressive company. People who started in technical engineering roles are now in leadership positions all over the world. There are career tracks where people can become master technicians.”

    New ‘blood’

    Michael Akinla, TSE manager, Panduit EMEA, believes there is a need for the data centre sector to identify how to create a fresher branding: “Take a look around most technical environments and you will see older males across the spectrum of roles. If current trends continue, in the next 10 years, how many of these people will have retired from the industry, and where is the influx of next generation innovators and engineers? 

    “We need to create, within a much younger audience, the desire to join our industry. To make them understand the links between mobile-technology, Netflix, the Cloud and the industry that drives it, to encourage students into engineering and technology careers,” he continues.

    Steve Hone, CEO of the Data Centre Alliance (DCA), agrees students need to be made aware of data centres and the career opportunities they afford. He believes there is a need for specialist education aimed at developing a qualified pool of new talent in the sector.

    “There are data centre-related training courses in place for those already in the industry, many of these supplied by companies such as CNet Training and DC Pro. Ruskin University also run a Masters Degree in Data Centre Leadership & Management. However, these qualifications are for those already in the industry,” he comments. 

    “Although this professional development training is vital, the DCA equally believes the skills gap in the data centre sector needs to be filled by new blood entering the industry. There is an urgent need to provide entry level qualifications to cater for those wishing to enter the sector.”

    To achieve this, Hone argues the data centre sector needs to not only do a better job of promoting itself from an awareness perspective but also to ensure that students are able to access specialist modules that focus on the data centre sector: “Awareness and accessibility to qualifications need to go hand in hand if we are to stand any chance of fixing this growing issue,” he concludes.

    Data centre industry ‘wish list’ of skills

    Professor Robert Tozer is an expert in mission critical facilities reliability and energy strategies, and has participated on many technical committees (ASHRAE, CIBSE, BREEAM, The Green Grid, and European Code of Conduct). He recently canvassed more than 100 data centre industry leaders for their views on training and the key areas that need to be addressed. The research identified a need to increase the understanding of ‘engineering within an IT context’. In particular, potential candidates need further training to ensure thay can describe exactly what data centres are for; show a knowledge of the current landscape, e.g. cloud services, hyperscale, IoT etc; and also have an insight into possible future requirements and developments. Risk, was also high on the agenda. Leaders indentified that candidates should be able to identify design and operational vulnerabilities and evaluate their possible impact on facility reliability. They should also have the skills to highlight areas for improvement. 

    Industry leaders also commented that a knowldge of sustainability is important. There needs to be greater understanding of the highest areas of environmental impact, including energy consumption of IT and M&E systems, and how this relates to business objectives. Furthermore, there is a need to improve understanding of the design, operational and management practices to improve environmental performance.

    Promoting cross-disciplinary working was also identified as important, while candidates should be able to demonstrate the ability, curiosity, passion and motivation to adapt to fresh challenges presented by technological developments and new business models. 

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