Friday, May 17, 2024

Data centers, essential and in crisis

During the pandemic, the number of data management centers increased globally. In 2021 there were nearly 8,000 such centres worldwide; approximately 40% are in the US1. Further growth is expected. Indeed, in Europe alone, the sector is predicted to grow by almost a third (32%) each year until 20294, and to keep up with, and to facilitate, that growth the industry needs a growing labour force.

Our societies increasingly depend on capturing, storing and processing data from business processes, customers, Internet of Things, patient monitoring, car servicing, blockchain, virtual reality, smart cities and the metaverse. While many people don’t see data centers, we all rely on them for so much of our daily lives. And now, with the rise of AI technology, ChatGPT, Dall-E, Lensa AI and Git Hub Copilot, there is also growing demand for specialised high-performance computing platforms.

To operate and improve existing data centers, or develop new ones, requires experience and specialist knowledge. Despite the recent growth of ICT specialists in the EU by almost 60% – which is six times more than other sectors – more than half (53%) of data center operators report that finding new talent is still a huge problem. In part, this challenge stems from inadequate skills training in the education system. In Europe, for instance, 30% of young people aged 13–14 years underperform in computing and literacy.

Workforce instability

But even when talent is found, holding on to it is also a challenge for the sector; 43% of employees leave to work in other related industries. European data shows that the average length of employment in the sector is only 1.8 years. Yet reportedly, it takes a minimum of five to six years for a new starter to become fully qualified and confident as a data center engineer.5

One reason employees may be leaving the sector almost before they have properly started may be a lack of training. Some 76%5 of employees had not completed or renewed certificates in the last year because there was either a lack of time, money or training programmes, and that lack of training could be viewed as career-limiting.

All of that is compounded by an ageing workforce. According to a DataCenter Knowledge survey, 87% of respondents were older than 44 years, the average age is 53, and a retirement tsunami is expected in the coming decade. That will create challenges in educating and mentoring the younger talent entering the sector to become tomorrow’s leaders.

Reasons not to be cheerful

The industry is clearly not attracting enough talent, which may be due to a whole host of reasons. Data centers are often based in remote locations, which makes commuting longer, more expensive, and perhaps for younger recruits, too far from the bright lights and fun times of towns and cities. The industry is also known to have sustainability issues due to its high carbon footprint and high-water usage needed to cool servers, just at a time when many industries are using their sustainability credentials to compete effectively in employment markets.

Data centers are modernising, and there are signs that sustainability issues are being addressed. The switch from water evaporation cooling systems to closed loop systems to re-circulate air-chilled water, for example, is reducing consumption2. And companies like Google are now publishing their water and CO2 footprints. Gartner predicts 75% of them will have a sustainability programme by 2027 compared to just 5% in 2022, which will help make the industry more attractive to young and older, more experienced employees. Perhaps, however, they are not moving fast enough.

Probably the most compelling issue for the lack of recruitment into data centers is the invisibility of the industry, along with the general lack of knowledge about the range of career opportunities it can offer beyond being a programmer or data processor.  The sector is working hard to attract people into roles centred around operations, business development, engineering, project management and IT, with some success in recent years. However, there is still a way to go if the current labour crisis is to be overcome.

Sourcing talent

One way to solve the mid and senior-level staff shortages is to encourage more career-changing applicants from other industries – even those with unusual backgrounds. That requires defining a broader set of skills than those of traditional technologists brought in from Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics fields. The industry must recognise that anyone with a technical and creative mindset or aptitude can be trained or retrained to fill vacant job roles and have a fulfilling career.  Critical thinking, strategy, problem-solving, an entrepreneurial mindset and the ability to work both independently and as part of a team are all skills needed in data centers and can be found in sectors as diverse as the military, pharmaceuticals, aerospace and even the arts.

Another way to address the skills gap and widen the pool of potential candidates is to attract more women into the industry. Informa conducted Data Center Knowledge’s 2022 salary survey and found that a depressingly vast majority (85%) of respondents were male. It also reported that 73% of data center technicians were men and only 27% were women – a steady ratio for over a decade. Yet many women will also have the potential to be part of the next generation of leaders; they too, will have the transferable skills the industry so desperately needs.

So, if the data center sector is to source talent from new pools of candidates, how can it assess their transferable skills, the individual’s suitability, the positive impact they could make, and the diversity of their experience and thinking?

Assessing potential

The traditional approach is to use CVs, interviews and personality tests. Still, whilst these are a good indication of past experience and expertise, they are less appropriate for assessing an individual’s natural proclivities, which are often the best indicators of future performance. Equally, personality assessments can point to certain traits, but they do not indicate a person’s potential impact on the future growth of a business.

There are new approaches to assessing job applicants, however, which can supplement or even supersede the conventional CV and reveal more than a personality test. One such tool is the Game Changing (GC) Index® which measures an individual’s proclivity, i.e. their individual approach to making an impact and contributing to a role, a team and the business. It is based on a simple proposition that everyone wants to live a life of purpose and potency. In work, it means people do well when they feel they are making a valued contribution.

By measuring and understanding an individual’s natural tendency, the company can align candidates to its people and its business. The recruits may have, for example, an innate ability to visualise the future and develop clear, actionable strategies, or they may see possibilities and generate ideas that can transform businesses and processes. Some people are gifted at getting the most out of people in the pursuit of common goals to deliver tangible results, whilst others see potential and focus on the pursuit of excellence. Although transferable skills and expertise are important, knowing the likely impact that an individual will have is priceless.

But the GCI is not only invaluable for the data center industry to attract new recruits, it can also help keep staff motivated by ensuring their natural talents are used and help them feel they are making a valued contribution and have a clear career path. Employers can make informed decisions about who is best suited for different roles and how to create the right environment for them to thrive, which in turn leads to unbiased decisions that support the diversity of thought and achieve their personal and their business objectives.

Ultimately the right candidate in the right role, the right team and the environment will help retain and nurture them in a lifelong career within the sector. Over time this will help the industry overcome its current labour crisis and build a more resilient labour force which will drive the industry’s future.