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Threats to the industry – skills shortage continues

James Hart

James Hart

CEO at Business Critical Solutions
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As the total amount of data created, captured and consumed in the world is forecast to continue to increase exponentially, few would argue against the importance of the need for a secure, flexible and efficient data centre infrastructure platform to house it.

However, once again, a potential threat to the delivery of sufficient new stock is a lack of sufficiently qualified professionals available to the industry, particularly in the fields of design and build. This has been likely amplified by the effects of international lockdown on the movement of a skilled labour force to areas of demand. In this year’s BCS Summer report, which contains the views of over 3,000 senior level data centre professionals across Europe, we have sought to understand who is in short supply and what the likely impact is on the sector moving forward.

All our respondent groups are in agreement

Across all of our respondent groups there remains real concern over a skills shortage in the data centre industry. Over 90% of respondents believe that the coming year will see a decline in supply of staff; around the same amount (93%) reporting this in winter 2020, arguably at the height of the Covid-19 crisis across Europe. To further exacerbate the problem, some 70% believe that this will be accompanied by a rise in demand for such staff. For the second survey in a row, there is near universal agreement amongst our developer respondents that the coming 12-month period will see a fall in supply of staff whilst the demand for those skill sets rises; the highest degree of assent amongst all our respondent’s groups.

In addition, Design, Engineering and Construction (DEC) respondents share an almost identical response profile – a universal belief that the next year will be characterised by a fall in supply of staff whilst the demand for those skill sets rises. This reflects a hardening of attitude on this issue contrasted with the 72% reporting this just six months ago.

In contrast, colocation providers have maintained the same level of concern since our last survey, with nearly 90% predicting increasing demand levels for skilled workers against a falling supply in the next 12 months. Integrators and carriers also expressed a similar degree of concern compared with six months ago. Where they differ is in the degree of concern, with 19% of carriers couching their agreement in the strongest possible terms.

Corporate respondents also registered a higher degree of concern over a potential skills gap, albeit more muted than our supplier sections. Amongst end-users, 62% believe that rising supply of skilled staff would be met with falling demand – up from the 40% who shared this view six months ago.

So, who is in short supply?

Over the last six months, we have noted an increase in the number of respondents concerned about potential problems arising from shortages specifically amongst design professionals; from 74% to over 84%. Within this we have seen a more pronounced rise in the number of respondents expressing their belief in the strongest terms – up from 25% to 37%. It should be noted that this level of concern is the highest we have recorded in the last six years, a period where we have seen a slow rise in the overall trend in concern amongst stakeholders in the European data centre industry.

At the build stage, the problem appears to be just as acute, with this survey registering an increase in those that both agreed and agreed strongly. Indeed, nearly 80% of the segmented supply specialists expressed their concerns that a shortage of sufficiently skilled build contractors existed, an increase on the 69% who suggested the same in the second half of 2020.

According to our respondents the difficulties in sourcing operational staff are slightly less pronounced than at the design and build stages. Around three-quarters expressed their agreement when asked about the shortages of sufficiently skilled operations staff, an increase on the 69% reporting it in the previous survey.

The strength of agreement does vary amongst the groupings, albeit not as pronounced as in other categories. Perhaps not surprisingly our DEC respondents expressed their concern over skills shortages in the most robust terms, with almost universal agreement that shortages exist at both the design (98%) and build (92%) stages.

Amongst our service providers, the strength of belief in design and build skill shortages is slightly less pronounced – nevertheless, over 90% of these respondents agreed that shortages are problematic.

For end-user respondents, a belief in shortages of skilled operational staff pose the biggest problem – 72% compared with just 22% for design professionals and 17% for build professionals. Many end-users adopt neutral position on these categories, perhaps not surprising given the increasing popularity of outsourcing solutions, meaning many of these are not exposed to the early stages of data centre delivery and as such have limited direct experience of the problems associated with it.

The problem is widespread

In terms of job shortage concerns, there appears to be widespread agreement that these are spread across a variety of specific job roles. Indeed, most respondents identified multiple roles as areas of concern. In the construction sector, almost two-thirds of respondents stated that they had experienced shortages of quantity surveyors, site managers and site engineers within the past year.

Within the operational sphere, around 70% of respondents stated that they have had direct experience of shortages amongst operations and network engineers/technicians over the last 12 months, with a slightly lower proportion – around two-thirds – seeing a shortage of infrastructure specialists over that period. Also worthy of note, Mechanical and Electrical project managers were also highlighted as an area of concern around the availability of skilled workforce – just over 60% cited shortages amongst this skill set as problematic.

What is the impact of these shortages?

The skills shortage debate is set within the context of the potential impact for the delivery of stock to the end user. Evidence from this survey suggests that these shortages have already had real consequences and directly impacted on respondents. When questioned about what impacts they had experienced because of these shortages in the past year, most respondents cited multiple factors.

The most cited impact is that these skills shortages have placed a greater workload on existing staff; nearly nine out of 10 cited this as the case, an uplift from the eightout of 10 recorded six months ago.

The shortage of staff has also inevitably led to increasing operating/labour costs recorded by 86%, a rise from the 70% who cited the same factor in winter 2020. Such shortages also can be seen as a contributory factor in the increasingly popularity of the use of outsourcing options, with around 60% citing it as such.

Encouragingly, it appears that fewer respondents are finding it difficult to resource existing work this year than was the case in 2020, with just over 40% stating that they had experienced difficulties in meeting deadlines or client objectives, down from 51% six months ago and some 70% who cited it as factor at the beginning of the pandemic 12 months ago.

However, the more extreme consequence of skills shortages is lost orders, with a quarter of respondents still believing that this happened, although this is a fall on the one-third identified six months ago. In addition, around a third stated that shortages had led to delays to developing new products/innovations, marginally down on the 39% recording this in our last survey, whilst the proportion that noted they had ceased offering certain products or services has fallen positively to 10% from 14%.

In conclusion, there is no doubt that the skills shortage is continuing to have a negative effect on the industry – and in my experience has been for over a decade. The question is how long it is sustainable and will the industry respond and find a solution. I hope so.

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