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Fixing the data centre skills shortage from the inside

Mike Hook

Mike Hook

Executive Director at LMG
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Skills shortage
Image credit: Monkey Business Images / Shutterstock.com

Data centres matter. That’s an uncontroversial statement in a publication like this, but much of the wider world is only recently beginning to grasp that fact.

Data centres and their infrastructure enable the digital lives that the vast majority of us now lead — so it’s hard to overstate their importance. That’s why the ongoing data centre skills shortage is such a pressing issue, not just for data centres and related industries, but for all who share in a digital future.

While steps are being made to rectify the skills gap, such as government investment and corporate training, progress isn’t happening fast enough. It’s up to those of us that work with and alongside the data centre industry to make real change. Before I share my thoughts on how to approach that, it’s worth establishing the scale of the skills shortage and how we got here in the first place.

Mind the gap

The skills required to operate and maintain data centres are highly technical. And demand for those skills has always outpaced supply. That’s the nature of an exciting, fast-growing industry. Having worked in this space for over thirty years, I’ve seen this skills gap grow over time. As the sector matures, there is a real risk of this shortage becoming baked in.

Recent research by the Uptime Institute suggests that up to half of all data centre engineers may be retiring in the next three years, despite the number of engineers needed globally rising by approximately 300,000 over the same period. The same research showed that half of data centre owner and operators are already struggling to fill open roles — and that was in 2020. These are deeply concerning stats that highlight the urgency of the skills shortage faced by the industry.

The gulf between open positions and qualified candidates won’t be bridged until the structural issues in the education system are resolved. For example, between 2015 – 2020, there was a 40% decrease in the number of UK students studying Computing or ICT qualifications at GCSE or A-Level. As a country, we simply aren’t producing enough engineers and we must ask if the national curriculum is fit for purpose.

The industry needs you

There has been an historic lack of interest and investment in data centre skills and training from the UK Government. But that’s no excuse for handwringing. We who work within the industry can and do make a difference through our own initiatives, helping to bring new talent in to plug the skills gap. As well as being of enormous benefit to those being offered opportunities in the sector, it’s also a matter of enlightened self-interest for companies operating in this space — ensuring they have a future too.

One noteworthy example of this are the industry partners helping to deliver the first ever secondary school data centre curriculum in the UK, the Digital Futures Programme. This pioneering educational programme for 14 – 19-year-olds, focused on the digital infrastructure and data centre industries, empowers young people on the cusp of entering the workforce. Delivered through workshops, projects and challenge days, the programme also creates a pathway to work experience and apprenticeships.

The more members of the data centre ecosystem that get involved in these kinds of initiatives, the better. As employers, we hold key insights that can be passed along to educators, allowing us to shape the next generation of talent. We propagate understanding of the data centre environment and the basic principles which underpin digital infrastructure engineering. This ensures that our near-future hires are well-equipped for their roles. 

You will be rewarded

As a business leader, you have a responsibility to ask what’s in it for you. In addition to the great big obvious benefit of alleviating the skills shortage faced by data centres, there are smaller benefits too. Providing insights to would-be apprentices better prepares them for working life, but also increases retention down the line, protecting your investment in their training and development. Partnering with education providers also allows businesses to build relationships with the best candidates early on.

In addition, getting involved in initiatives that promote social good shines a light on yourself and the data centre industry generally. Raising awareness of the demand for talent and the vocational routes into the industry helps to generate interest and to break down any educational snobbery. And the PR value of being a part of the solution certainly doesn’t hurt either.

Very rarely do you get to see a true ‘win/win’ scenario, in work or in life. But as a company in the data centre industry, investing time and energy into proactively addressing the skills shortage is exactly that. Whether through partnerships and programmes such as Digital Futures or otherwise, a business-led approach confers benefits to all stakeholders and society more generally.

There’s still time

Data centres matter. The data centre services industry was valued at almost $50bn in 2020, and is forecast to hit $105bn in 2026 — more than doubling in a six-year period. The scale of this growth is matched by the scale of the challenges, and opportunities, available to members of this sector willing to step up, get involved, and help address the skills shortage. It isn’t too late to buck the jobs trend and bring supply closer to demand, but the urgency increases with each passing day. We cannot wait around.

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