Apprentices and the opportunity for the data centre industry

Apprentices and the opportunity for the data centre industry

Building the ideal apprenticeship environment is a key component to closing the data centre skills gap. Steve Hayward, Senior Director European Operations, CyrusOne, offers a solution to how data centre operators and the wider community can respond to join untapped talent with growing businesses in need of support. 

With recent UK Government data finding over 95% of employers say they experienced at least one benefit of hiring an apprentice – and with most counting at least eight positives – it’s clear there is a tremendous opportunity for more organisations to consider apprenticeship schemes. 

What’s more, there is a growing number of young people questioning whether higher education is really for them and instead considering becoming apprentices – recent research found participation in apprenticeships by those aged 19+ in 2021/22 saw an increase of 3.3% on the 2020/21 figure. On top of that, there is a clear need for the technology sector – and more specifically, the data centre industry – to address the ongoing skills gap. But this begs the question, how can data centre operators and the wider community respond to join untapped talent with growing businesses in need of support? 

There are two key elements to this – break down barriers to achieving diversity, equity and inclusion and build the ideal apprenticeship.

Continue to build inclusive environments

It is important that potential new hires from all backgrounds can thrive in their apprenticeship, which requires an ongoing commitment to actively improve diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).

The good news is that at a national level, potential invisible barriers to greater diversity in apprentices are breaking down. In February 2023, the Department for Education announced it is raising awareness of apprenticeship options available to young people, and that via UCAS will allow people to apply for apprenticeships alongside their degrees, which will make it easier for a wider pool to take the apprentice route.

But companies should also drill down into what they can do to improve. Achieving DEI is not a ‘one and done’ activity, it requires continual review and transformation over time. It’s about ensuring people from all walks of life, including varying demographics such as age, gender and ethnicity feel confident they are part of the team and have the opportunity to pursue a fulfilling career. It also means listening to employees and taking action to improve ways of working. This is by no means easy but will pay dividends in the long term.

Research from McKinsey has found diversity is not just a ‘nice to have’ but makes business sense, with diverse companies more likely to outperform less diverse organisations on profitability. As such, diversifying where companies look for new hires is crucial. They could consider local communities and schools, or even hobby groups such as sports teams, arts or music collectives which could feature fresh, motivated potential employees with a range of transferable skills useful for a career in data centres. 

We at CyrusOne have partnered with University Technical College Heathrow, a specialist school teaching science, technology, maths and engineering, to help redesign its existing curriculum to allow students to gain the essential knowledge and skills needed to thrive in technical careers within the data centre sector. One of its students, Kirstie Poon, is currently on an apprenticeship with CyrusOne and has spoken about how it’s helped her to understand the kind of career options available to her long-term and what she’s looking for in a future full-time job.

Thinking critically about hiring practices is also vital. Tech Nation, the UK network for technology entrepreneurs, has shared several ways innovators have improved their own application processes. For example, one organisation hid certain data from candidates’ hiring profiles, such as their name and details that could reveal their age such as year of school graduation, to remove potential implicit biases, in addition to focusing on role- and task-based questions in the application process. In randomised control trials, it proved up to 60% of applicants who were qualified could have been sifted out at the CV review stage. Tech Nation also found studies showing HR teams implementing this have a 96% retention rate a year after employment.

Build the ideal apprenticeship environment

The education think tank EDSK revealed many apprentices quitting apprenticeships felt their experience was ‘poor quality’ with a lack of training and bad management, and even receive less than the minimum one day off a week to receive teaching. Thousands are ending these early each year, so it’s imperative apprenticeship providers implement structures to ensure staff feel supported from beginning to end. If not, they may feel disengaged from the programme and de-motivated to continue in the data centre industry, let alone their placement.

What is key is continually assessing how apprentices are feeling in their roles and ensuring they feel empowered to ask questions so they can make the most of their time. That means making sure managers are set up to deliver success too and feel they have the right tools and training to dedicate to apprentices. Improving programmes can also entail investing in new technologies that make the apprentice experience the best it can be, such as onboarding platforms or training systems. 

Being clear about the role new hires play within data centre operators is also important, so that the organisation can meet the expectations of the apprentice and vice versa. Ensuring their buy-in from the outset, offering access to a mentor or ‘buddy’ and giving them real responsibilities – the impact of which they can tangibly see – can make them feel a great sense of belonging. The more they are satisfied with their role, the better the results are likely to be, which in turn can drive retention and even boost the chance of becoming a permanent employee.

Our own apprentices have shared how they really enjoy the exposure to many areas of the business, for example via shadowing marketing, facility managers, engineers and more employees in different teams and locations to understand how the company operates holistically. This can enable them to visualise all the different career paths available and inspire them to see themselves in the shoes of leadership in the future.

The future

The technology skills gap is not a problem that is going to be easily solved anytime soon, but apprentices can be a great source of talent to help ease this in the short and long term. With fresh perspectives, inquisitive minds and a willingness to learn, there are thousands of potential new apprentices that could be invaluable for the data centre industry, and companies are right to consider ways they can improve the working environment to be more inclusive and ensure everyone thrives in their jobs – no matter how difficult that may be. However, if organisations in the data centre industry do not commit the right amount of resources to developing and improving their apprenticeship programmes, this strategy could backfire and leave individuals with great potential instead feeling alienated. As such, companies must be proactive in getting the apprenticeship experience right and in turn they can reap the rewards – fantastic new team members, better retention and more widely, put themselves in a greater position for business success.

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