We have a significant and well recognised problem in the data centre world - the fact that recruiting the right people to work in our data centres is an increasing challenge. This has been recognized by regular panel discussions and presentations at events around the world over several years, and continues to be a topic of debate, even in our current world of virtual events.
It should therefore be recognised that this is not simply a national problem in any one country, it is very much a global issue. Whatever part of the world we may live or operate in, the challenges appear remarkably similar.
There are a number of reasons for the issues we face. One element is that we tend to require both experience and qualifications. With a relatively small number of people employed in our sector, it is relatively difficult to find those unicorns that have both, without simply recruiting directly from other data centre operators and service providers. We need to be far more inclusive and consider people from other disciplines and fields that may not have direct experience or directly relevant qualifications. For instance, the airline industry might be a good place to consider recruitment at the moment with the issues that the travel sector is facing.
We tend to think that we are very different from other sectors, but the reality is that there is a great deal of overlap between sectors that have similar business critical ambitions. By perpetuating the unnecessary need for people with both directly relevant experience and qualifications, we are somewhat guilty of creating the problem ourselves.
We also tend to look too closely at the hard skills required to operate a data centre, which are principally traditional engineering and ICT skills. These can be taught, albeit at a cost and only over time. What is often more difficult to find though is the right cultural fit. Those people who intuitively understand what it takes to run a business critical operation. The elimination of risks, the maintenance of redundancy and the focus on reliability required to consistently deliver service availability, the ultimate goal of all data centre operations. This is one of the reasons that a lucrative source of data centre industry operations has traditionally been those leaving the military or with a past military background. This remains a good source of data centre talent, but the supply of people with a military background and good engineering skills is relatively small and demand is high from multiple sectors.
Frankly, at the moment we are all fishing in the same pond and competing with each other rather than bringing in new talent. This is great for the candidates as it means they have plenty of options available and higher salaries than many other more traditional engineering sectors, but this is an unhealthy situation for employers. I have even come across instances of data centre operators insourcing their Facilities Management and Operations team away from 3rd party suppliers purely to protect their investment in and their site-specific skills.
Generally speaking, we should be far more inclusive, but this is not simply about gender or diversity – though that is extremely important as well. There are problems for diversity within engineering in general and not just data centres, which we as a sector cannot address alone, but there are initiatives we can support. This is more about openness to people with experience in other sectors though, as previously mentioned. We seem determined to only recruit people with data centre experience, which is relatively rare. Rather we should be looking for aptitude and attitude rather than direct experience.
In order to highlight this, it is worth pointing out that many people now in their 60s are staring to retire. These are typically people who have now spent years or decades in the sector and do have a vast accumulation of skills and experience in the sector and are seen as leaders in our community. Nevertheless, the majority of these people were allowed to gain their initial experience by a back door route with very limited or no direct experience in the data centre sector (myself included!). Despite the pivotal roles and leadership positions that many of these people now occupy, this route to entry seems firmly closed by extremely unhelpful recruitment policies.
The data centre sector still appears to be largely a career of chance rather than a career of choice for many, if not most, people entering our sector, and yet we still demand experience. It is hardly surprising that we find ourselves struggling to recruit!
This is also despite the fact that salaries in our sector continue to be very favourable when compared with other sectors. It may be that this will change as people begin to see how resilient and robust our sector has proved to be in the current crisis. Covid-19 has thrown a very positive spotlight on our sector, raising our profile significantly but also bringing home to people just how dependent we all are on digital infrastructure in general, and data centres in particular.
An additional aspect of the problem is that there is no useful definition of a data centre engineer or many other positions within the data centre sector. This means there is little to aim for in terms of suitable qualifications when people are considering a future career. Similarly, because we are looking for a mix of traditional disciplines, there are no school or college courses at the undergraduate or pre university levels that directly cater for a career in data centres. We require a mix of Electrical, Mechanical, IT, building services and service management skill sets but there is little out there to determine what that mix might be or how people might achieve that mix to be attractive to prospective employers.
To make things worse we have no useful working definition of what actually constitutes a data centre. Those with an IT background have a very different view of what a data centre is than those with a more traditional engineering background. Again the lack of definition complicates things and leaves us at a disadvantage against other more established sectors with critical engineering talent requirements.
Another challenge we face is that we are competing with other sectors for similar skills and yet we are firmly below the radar for most people; in the early stages of making their career choices and frankly totally unknown to those advising young adults on their possible career options. We therefore need to be making ourselves more visible, more attractive, and more obvious as a career choice as well as being more prepared to ‘grow our own’ rather than look for the perfectly qualified and experienced data centre person.
Those of us who have had a good career in the world of data centres and would like to give something back should consider what they can do to make us more visible, as well as making every effort to raise the profile of our sector with young people at schools and colleges. This would help these people starting out in their career at least appreciate that there is a wonderful career opportunity available in a sector that is growing (and has continued to both grow and be remarkably resilient even in times of global recession and pandemic). A sector that is also currently attracting significant investment and is set to develop rapidly over the next few years in areas of the world that have historically not had the same level of deployment of digital infrastructure as that in Western Europe and North America.
It is not just Data Centres!
The final point that is worth making on this topic is that it is not just data centres. The fact is that there are not enough people going into engineering generally. All areas of engineering are facing an increasing skills shortage. As mentioned, in the data centre sector we like to think that we are different. We are not! We are competing with others seeking engineering expertise in a diminishing pool of talent. There are multiple initiatives to encourage students or graduates to enter the data centre sector but frankly this is far too late. We need to be encouraging much younger people (and hugely importantly their parents), to see engineering generally as a wonderful career choice in order to increase the general engineering talent pool. This needs to happen well before they make their final choices about degrees or college courses. If they do not make to decision to go into engineering sufficiently early they are probably lost to us already.