For those abreast of data centre news and business acquisition considerations, our industry has been mindful of real-estate risk, environmental risk, power and regulatory risks for some time but the one issue keeping a number of us awake at night, and a real lever to derail expansion, is talent risk. ‘Where are all the good people?’ or to rephrase this, ‘there are far too few good, and available talented people in the sector’…and the pipeline is flat and diminishing.
As someone whose been involved in the technology sector since the dot com boom of the 90s, working on high technology projects in the UK, Europe, Australia, Asia, New Zealand and the US, I recall that advancements in developing capacity, and capability in data centre specific skills was lacking way back then. Sadly, we’re still falling-short today. While a handful of the highly skilled players from the 90s are still in the field today – over the next decade we are about to lose these vital skills through retirement at a pace well short of replenishing supply. As the capacity of digital infrastructure is rapidly expanded in coming years, this shortfall of qualified, experienced talent will only become more stark.
Whilst the expansion of our industry is hugely exciting, executing growth or renewal strategies without a pool of specialist resources is an increasing concern for all makes and shapes of data centres, their visionaries and operators, across multiple geographies. Certainly, the view across industry is that more training, investment, and creative tactics will be needed to support this forecast growth. Even if we can fast track training and skills injection, are we clear what training will hit the mark and how it will need to evolve to work with AI development, respond to commoditization of design services and the growth of analytical design tools? Most would agree there is still a strong need for human talent in the industry, but roles and training will and are rapidly evolving within the digital ecosystem.
As recently highlighted by the Uptime Institute report The people challenge: Global data center staffing forecast 2021-2025, STEM students are unaware of the full range of employment opportunities offered by the DC industry. Equally students may not be attracted to the 24×7 nature of the work. A combination of lack of visibility of opportunity plus an education gap to highlight that 24 x 7 work actually provides global advantages is an inhibitor to selling the sector as a strong career path. Flexibility of choosing when you wish to work, whom you work for or with, coupled with the ability to work across time zones remotely and be involved in projects beyond your immediate geographic reach or local scale are all actually benefits to working in our industry. Additionally, there is the ability to connect, observe and learn through engagement with design team members, clients and stakeholders from diverse cultures, and the impetus to cut through pandemic constraints while strengthening business resilience, continuity and supply chain – these attributes are positive motivators and outcomes of a career in our industry. There’s a lot to be promoted across the sector, it’s just not talked up by enough diverse people.
In order to reverse the current decline in available talent, noted by the Uptime Institute to be in the order of 140,000 people within the next five years in APAC alone, dual approaches are needed: firstly transfer of knowledge from existing industry leaders to new talent; and, secondly feeding the pipeline with gender and culturally diverse talent – groups currently underrepresented in our industry and the engineering profession as a whole.
A trend in knowledge transfer that’s currently growing is the transfer of IP from more mature industry players nearing retirement through AR, helping to secure lessons learned for the next generation of learners. Pathways are also available to use AI and AR to capture learning in 3D from others, facilitating just in time training and knowledge transfer. We could be doing more of this every day across many levels of skill in the profession. More multi-generational investment is required to support reverse mentoring from our digital natives, an aspect likely to benefit many, as some grapple to transition to new ways of working, interpreting data, digital design tools and engagement platforms. Let’s not let this opportunity go to waste and proactively upskill and share skills across all levels and inter-organisation, to build better resilience in our supply chain capacity and breath of capability.
Many recent advancements in digitisation of design processes and workflows has positively supported the learning and development of designers with project delivery software being an enabler, providing smart tools to speed workflow process, prefabricate and verify results through assurance processes. However the skills needed to identify when digital results don‘t look right – and using the core skills of common sense, logical reasoning and problem solving to work with analytics and AI to interpret, test and challenge what we see will always be required.
Secondly, attracting diverse talent is vital for us to engage and connect with our peers in industry and deliver the DCs of the future. Designers and other team members should mirror the cultural, gender and age diversity within our societies, and be aligned on sustainability and social impact goals if we want to truly encourage diverse, high performing talent ecosystems in our globally connected world. To help build a diverse, experienced talent pool a number of approaches are needed.
Tapping into new talent during high school will help feed the long-term pipeline for our industry. Bespoke foundation courses which are economical to produce and distribute via virtual channels and designed to suit a range of cultural and social demographic groups, would help to educate young people before they leave school and make their first career choices.
Once we have young people interested in building a career in data centres we need to develop pathways for engagement with industry to aid in practical education. Examples include internships or work experience for students as well as mentoring and leadership programs that can continue connection between students and our sector.
Once students reach university, the ability to form partnerships with DC operators for research and development as well as hands on learning is important to ensure graduates are industry ready.
Innovative alternate career pathways should also be explored. Salute Mission Critical, as one example, successfully reskills and redeploys military personnel in the US as they transition to the private sector, where generally their strong analytical and critical thinking skills can be adapted to the DC industry to create mutually positive outcomes for employee and employer. Physical security, counter terrorism, electronic, software, programming, logistics and telecommunications skills are just a few complementary skills leveraged through their transition programs. The challenge for us, equally, will be to think more creatively around transitioning people out of current employment in declining industries, to build capability and provide sustainable opportunities for multi generations of workers keen to explore the digital world.
From my experiences over the years, both working in and recruiting for skilled teams, real learning only comes through exposure to real jobs, shadow mentoring, feedback and helping people up on their professional journeys. The future role of employers as our trainers becomes more questionable – DC talent has huge scope to self-generate the next generation of talent through diverse and inclusive recruitment, through industry mentorship and cross regional collaboration, with each of us having more control and autonomy of our personal brand and IP.
Agility will survive and there is no doubt that the DC industry needs agile and innovative skills on steroids; the DC market is one of the few not at risk of being wiped out by technology because it is an ecosystem of vast technologies – there is an exciting future in this space for those who seek the challenge.
About Our Expert
Technical Director – Mission Critical APAC
With long-term, diverse global experience, heavily involved in the technology boom from the late 1990s through to today, Donna has held key leadership, governance and operational management roles spanning the Asia Pacific, UK and Europe.
NDY is a leading participant in the Mission Critical Data Centre market, once an afterthought for global enterprises, and now a cornerstone of the information economy – Donna’s focus is technical excellence and global collaboration; driving innovation and sustainable outcomes to underpin asset optimisation, technology design and investment decisions around data rich projects – in our ever-evolving data empowered world.