Third of data centre technicians ‘pose a high risk’: calls to tackle skills gap

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    Nearly a third of data centre technicians have been found to pose a ‘high risk to the organisation’, when assessed for competence – highlighting a pressing need to tackle the skills gap in the sector. This was the stark warning issued by Andrew Stevens, CEO, CNet Training, at Data Centres Ireland in Dublin.

    During his presentation on the The Future Challenges of the Digital Infrastructure Industry, he explained that data centre technicians were assessed for competence and confidence against five modules comprising: functionality of a data centre; availability and constraints; design and standards; operational systems and processes; and criticality.

    He provided a sobering insight into the typical workforce in terms of understanding and confidence in their roles:

    • 21% can achieve optimum performance: they have a high level of understanding and high confidence

    • 50% have knowledge gaps: they have a lack of understanding of some topics

    • 29% are potentially a risk: they have misunderstanding and misplaced confidence

    Given these findings, Stevens concluded that it is “no surprise that human error remains the main root cause of data centre downtime”.

    He pointed out that statistics suggest that the percentage of data centre failures caused by human error has not improved in the past 20 years. So why is the issue not being addressed?

    One challenge, according to Stevens, is the budget allocated to training by organisations. He pointed out that millions of euros are spent on data centre equipment that may never be used – yet the people who work in the data centre, every day, often pose the greatest threat.

    He called for greater investment in training of data centre employees as part of “good risk management”.

    “We all know that outages cost money,” commented Stevens. British Airways compensation, following its well-publicised outage, cost in excess of £150m, for example. Companies are also willing to spend £100k on certifying their data centre facility. “While the data centre may be well designed, what about the people? It’s not all about the building – everyone should be certified,” commented Stevens. He pointed out that businesses do not look at education from a business risk perspective and tend to send their best employees on education programmes – why?

    In addition, businesses do not measure the improvements after education, so do not communicate the benefits and results. He highlighted the value that just one employee’s training can bring to an organisation – citing an example where a single individual delivered a $2.5m saving for their employer. Investing in staff training can pay significant dividends therefore.

    The data centre needs to acknowledge and accept the issues it faces and address them, warned Stevens, adding that the sector “must learn from other industries” and develop ongoing strategies to support the hierarchy of competence. In his view, traditional thinking will not solve the skills shortage within the sector.

    Stevens said that big businesses are reporting that graduate programmes are no longer fit for purpose and they no longer consider degrees when recruiting.

    “There is a mis-match between employers and students,” he commented.

    According to a report from the Edge Foundation, 52% of existing students said that, if they had their time again, they would be unlikely to go into higher education under the current financial regime. Stevens highlighted figures that show that students in England are now graduating with average debts of £50,800, and less than 58% reported receiving good value for money. Parents are now steering their children away from higher education. At the same time, many organisations want to ‘grow their own’ talent, rather than employing graduates.

    In the past, apprenticeships carried a bit of a ‘social stigma’ but perceptions are now changing. Stevens highlighted the opportunities that work-based training offers, such as apprenticeships, and encouraged data centre operators to take greater responsibility for developing training opportunities to bridge the skills gap in the sector as a whole. Engaging students, as early as age eight, is crucial if the sector is going to tackle the skills gap in the future. The sector need to introduce the industry to: schools, parents and careers advisors; approaching universities is too late, he warned.

    “It is the responsibility of ALL within the digital infrastructure industry to help spread awareness of the industry,” he commented. “We have to attract the future talent.”

    Stevens believes that the digital infrastructure industry needs to address:

    • Succession planning

    • The ageing workforce

    • The early retirees

    • Widening skills gap

    • Improve the workforce it already has

    • Increase the talent pipeline within the industry

    • Approach affiliated sectors and cross train (M&E)

    “We have to look to the future and the future is not just next year; it is the next 20 years… The skills shortage or pipeline issue is real; we compete with other industries and they are further advanced,” Stevens commented.

    He pointed out that, in the US, some data centres have closed down local further education courses by ‘poaching’ students in a desperate bid to hire young recruits. If the college loses funding and closes, future generations of recruits will be lost. The sector must to take a longer-term view, Stevens urged.

    “Ongoing people development has to become a core activity. Traditional thinking will not solve the issue… We often talk about sustainability in this industry, but sustainability is about what we leave behind. We, as an industry, have a duty of care to leave a legacy,” he concluded.

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