How can data centre managers foster an environment that encourages new talent and incentivise progression in the data centre space?

How can data centre managers foster an environment that encourages new talent and incentivise progression in the data centre space?

Recent research has highlighted the fragility of the digital infrastructure industry’s recruitment. As fewer young people are entering the data centre space despite growth in the sector, we get insight into the importance of new talent for the industry and how digital twins might be a solution.

Professor Rabih Bashroush, Professor of Digital Infrastructure and Director of Enterprise Research Lab, University of East London

The data centre industry is in danger of succumbing to crippling growing pains if it does not pause to take notice of what lies in front of it and – importantly – act before it is too late.

New data from Professor Rabih Bashroush, Professor of Digital Infrastructure and Director of Enterprise Research Lab, University of East London, shows what is happening in the data centre’s labour market. He presented his latest labour market findings at Portman Partner’s recent Talent event.

To establish a holistic view of the data centre workforce and trends, Professor Bashroush’s research team has taken hundreds of millions of people registered on LinkedIn around the world and filtered the data to see the characteristics of those LinkedIn users who work in the data centre world.

The data shows a cliff edge in as little as five to 10 years – as the challenges of an ageing workforce come home to roost – and this is in stark contrast to the healthy distribution of the workforce across the global economy.

The typical distribution curve of the global workforce shows that the bulk of employees are in the early years of their careers, coming into the workforce to be trained. However, Professor Bashroush’s 2020 data set shows that the reverse is true for the data centre industry, with very few workers coming into the industry and a much higher concentration of staff around the 14-15 years experience mark and also at 20 years.

The data centre industry is growing significantly faster than the rest of the market in C-level positions; with a 28% increase compared to 1% in the rest of the market. The number of people at the VP level increased by 25% compared to 4%, and Director level increased by 37% compared to a 10% increase for the rest of the market.

The LinkedIn data also shows that the two company sizes within the data centre industry that have the fastest increase in employees between 2020 and 2023 are organisations with 10,000 employees – with a 24% increase in three years compared to 18% in the rest of the market – and start-ups with one to 10 employees, which have seen a 31% increase compared to 21% at the rest of the market.

The data also validates the anecdotal trend that it is attracting people from other sectors in significant numbers because it shows the number of people in the industry at senior levels or who have more than 15 years’ experience appears to be increasing despite low volumes of people with less experience.

Mike Meyer, Managing Director, Portman Partners

Mike Meyer, Managing Director, Portman Partners

As an executive search company working with digital infrastructure leadership teams and investors, we are relied upon to provide real-time market information and identify emerging trends – our role in the hiring of senior people means that we are seeing this growth first-hand. We know, for example, that we have to look outside of the data centre industry to identify potential candidates with transferable skills.

A big focus of recruitment efforts has historically been recruiting ex-military personnel, who bring with them mission-critical experience. But if we are to safely veer away from the cliff edge, the industry needs to widen the net for other types of career-changers, even those in the early stages of their careers with fewer years of experience.

The industry needs to find more people with transferrable skills and – importantly – it needs to fix the poor visibility of the sector for jobseekers starting out; we need to help jobseekers find the path to the digital infrastructure industry – something which they may never have heard of before.

Attracting and retaining talent is a widespread problem and worsening. In a 2022 survey carried out by the Uptime Institute, over half (53%) of operators surveyed said that finding qualified candidates for open jobs was difficult – this is up from 47% who reported this difficulty in 2021 and 38% in 2018. The exponential growth of many businesses is also disrupting employee retention, with 42% reporting that staff are being hired away by other data centre competitors, compared to a 2018 figure of 17%.

The challenge is no doubt compounded by the demographic imbalances in the industry, meaning that many potential candidates with the right skills or aptitudes are easily deterred because they do not see enough ‘likeness’. On all matters of diversity and inclusion, leaders across the industry need to urgently devise and execute action plans and put their full commitment behind them.

Attracting people from under-represented groups to build a workforce with more diversity in terms of gender, ethnicity and socio-economic backgrounds, as well as people with cognitive diversity who can offer different problem-solving abilities and new perspectives. For sustainable workforce growth, we need people who can shine a light on the data centre industry, who act as role models and leave footprints for more people to find successful careers within our critical industry.

Recent research is a clear warning that if the industry does not act on its imperative to build a future talent pool, it doesn’t have a sustainable future. A major pillar in the industry’s future success is attracting people with the potential to grow the industry, people with different skills and occupational expertise – people who want to carve out a full career in the industry.

Marynet Bassily, Senior Procurement Director EMEA, Vantage Data Centers

Marynet Bassily, Senior Procurement Director EMEA, Vantage Data Centers

As demand for data centres continues to grow, it is essential for data centre management professionals to develop more resilient and long-term strategies for attracting new blood into data centre organisations – whether on-premise or colocation. At the same time, they should attack the growing skills shortages by working harder at retaining and leveraging the latent skills that may already exist within the workforce.

This means thinking more creatively and looking beyond the conventional wisdom when it comes to recruitment, and to practice diversity and inclusivity in the widest sense to ensure significantly more people from all walks of life – irrespective of gender or ethnicity – are equally considered for positions of responsibility. This offers greater flexibility in working practices, especially in the case of working mothers.

To encourage new talent and incentivise progression in the data centre space requires a concerted plan of action should be considered, such as: 

  • Partner with educational institutions to create targeted programmes and internships that attract young people – women in particular – to careers in the data centre industry. 
  • Develop mentorship programmes that pair experienced professionals with entry-level employees and new recruits, to support career development, provide guidance and foster a sense of inclusion. The power of mentoring cannot be underestimated for transferring practical knowledge and experience. It is crucial to building employee self-confidence, motivation and the sharing of experiences and ideas. This stimulates new thinking and contributes enormously to overall innovation.
  • Offer robust professional development programmes to all employees, providing opportunities for growth and advancement within the data centre industry. Promote continuous learning by offering technical certifications, training workshops and conferences to keep staff up to date with evolving technologies.
  • Encourage participation in industry networking events, conferences and seminars, including those specifically targeted at women in technology. 
  • Create employee resource groups that focus on diversity and inclusion to provide a platform for employees to share experiences, offer support and drive initiatives to promote equality in the workplace.
  • Support work-life balance by promoting flexible work arrangements, such as remote work options, flexible hours and family-friendly policies to enable employees, including women, to effectively manage their personal and professional lives.
  • For key positions that cannot otherwise be accommodated from within the current workforce, data centre managers should consider potential candidates working in related industries. For instance, this might include those working in the wider infrastructure and mission-critical construction sector. Equally, for more general roles – project management for example – try being more open to considering graduates from non-engineering backgrounds. Moreover, consider recruiting from further afield, not just from within the local region or country concerned.

Mark Fenton, Senior Product Marketing Manager, Cadence

Mark Fenton, Senior Product Marketing Manager, Cadence

It’s no secret that data centres are struggling to address rising talent shortages that are driven by a lack of skills and too few people entering the industry. In fact, according to the Uptime Institute, more than half (53%) of operators are experiencing difficulties finding qualified talent, a 15% increase from 2018.

To prevent the talent crisis from following its upward trajectory, data centre managers need to foster an environment that opens the doors to more people and builds on the skills of the current talent. Digital twins, Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) can play a pivotal role in achieving this.

Firstly, digital twins – which simulate physical data centres in the virtual realm – create a risk-free environment that enables staff to test out changes and learn their impacts before they implement them. For example, they can be used to replicate how a data centre would react to the introduction of a new cooling system. For a data centre that’s short-staffed or struggling to access specific skills, this is revolutionary. Not only does it nurture a test-bed ecosystem to develop employees’ knowledge, but it also makes it much easier for staff to oversee a complex estate.

Digital twins could also be used in education, to remotely show prospective talent the type of tasks that could form part of their role. Ultimately, this would demonstrate how fulfilling a career in the sector can be and increase the industry’s overall appeal.

Meanwhile, VR headsets or AR-enabled glasses could show a real data centre environment overlayed with insightful digital information, linking the physical to the digital world. Creating links between the real physical device and digital information, such as a user manual, live monitoring data, or even simulation results, could enable site staff with all the information required to make decisions at their fingertips in the real world. In addition, this can be used in a training environment to develop skills such as installations, decommissions or other maintenance tasks. Back in the real world, an employee could walk the data centre floor guided remotely by a manager who is upskilling them through AR-enabled glasses.

Used independently or in conjunction, this technology will play a critical role in allowing staff to navigate the difficulties that come with talent gaps in the short term. In the longer term, they’ll be one of the most effective tools in upskilling staff and attracting future talent to the data centre industry.

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