The Critical Facilities Labor Market
A culture shift is needed.
There is a crisis developing in the critical facilities labor market. The available pool of qualified and experienced talent is not keeping up with the demand. The crisis is occurring pretty much across the board, from professional engineers who design critical facilities to the trades that build them. It includes the operators who run these sites and the maintenance force who keep them running. And it is impacting the architectural and engineering (A&E) firms, the general contractors (GCs), the subcontractors, the equipment vendors, commissioning firms, and in the end, the owners and facility management firms as well.
This labor shortage is not a surprise. We have discussed this for years and it has been the topic of many presentations at critical facilities venues like DatacenterDynamics, 7x24 Exchange, iMasons, and AFCOM. We have predicted it, watched it unfold, and are now observing the effects. It is predicated on some obvious “knowns” including the following:
- The skills and knowledge required to succeed in the commercial building industry is inadequate to meet the requirements of the critical facilities industry
- The critical facilities industry has been and continues expanding and at an increasing rate
- The “old guard” (grey-hairs like me) are retiring or at least moving on from the day-to-day production roles
- There are few avenues for developing critical facilities skills, and knowledge
- There are few standards for industry-wide qualifications or certifications
- The younger generations consider the IT realms as more lucrative and desirable than the traditional trades
During my travels over the last six months or more, I have asked many people I’ve encountered how their companies are being impacted by the tight job market. In every case, the answer has been consistent. It is a struggle to find talent, and it is getting worse. A senior manager at a well-known electrical contractor recently told me he must hire two electricians to replace the one leaving, and still gets less production and more errors for the work accomplished. As a result, contractors are paying more to lure known talent from other contractors; often their competition. This doesn’t address the labor shortage; it is simply a shell game as the competition is left with the same gap to fill.
Too much demand
The operations and maintenance staff are also in ever-greater demand. In the past, the critical facilities industry has sought after ex-Navy nukes and other military-trained technicians to run and maintain critical facilities who are easily assimilated into the demands and challenges of our 7x24xforever requirements.
This pool of ready-to-go talent can no longer keep up with demand. The “mega-data centers” that were renowned in the not-so-distant past as being exceptional have essentially been commoditized. The big social media, cloud providers, and even colocation players are now constructing them literally by the dozens. This has resulted in contractors, A&Es, and everyone else being awarded work they may not have the existing talent to staff. It is no wonder that we are seeing an increased demand for independent QA/QC programs and staff and nearly universal recognition that independent third-party commissioning is a must.
A path forward
Ideally, there would be clear, formal, and measurable paths for interested entry-level recruits to gain facilities-specific training and qualifications directly applicable to working in critical facilities. These programs would, of course, need to include the prerequisite skills and knowledge that trades, engineers, vendors, etc., need for traditional facilities design, construction, and operations. These training programs would then supplement the curriculums with critical facilities performance-based training including academics, hands-on shop training, and on-the-job training culminating in formal certifications. For the most part, these do not exist. There are some vocational programs that have taken hold and offer promise for the future, but they are woefully insufficient to meet the challenge already upon the industry now. The common path today is to immerse new hires into critical facilities projects with some mentoring and supervision and hope they develop sufficiently to meet tomorrow’s needs.
So how will this labor deficit get resolved? My opinion is it will be the result of supply vs. demand coupled with a cultural paradigm shift driven by typical market forces. In other words, money talks. The same forces that a decade ago resulted in the perception that a four (or more) year degree in IT was the route to both social and financial success, will drive the change. As the industry becomes flooded with programmers, their individual value will drop. Simultaneously, as the opportunities and associated salaries of the trades increase, and the career seekers see a viable path to stable employment with lucrative pay (and without an additional four years of college debt), more will choose this path.
This paradigm shift can also hold some improved opportunities for increasing the diversity of the critical facilities labor pool. Those who are not fortunate enough to invest both the time and expense necessary to attend college will see critical facilities as an arena rich with achievable success. As the social stigmas diminish and the financial rewards become evident to the younger generation, more of them will see the vocational trade school options and alternatives to college as worth pursuing.
The allure of working in “critical” roles, whether they be engineering or the trades, can help overcome the stigma associated with the traditional image of “facilities.” Add to that a higher tier of salaries and compensation, and our youth will see critical facilities as on par with the IT labor market, especially as IT becomes more commonplace. After all, not everyone wants to work day-after-day in the same office with a screen, keyboard, and mouse.
Cultural shift needed
So, what can be done to expedite the requisite changes? The labor shortage coupled with the industry expansion will drive market forces to increase salaries, and the opportunities already exist. Just ask those who are searching for qualified and experienced employees. It is the cultural shift that needs more attention. The industry could benefit greatly (as well as society in general) by promoting the stature and recognition that we still value those with the skills and knowledge to build things, especially highly complex, high technology critical facilities that our entire world is becoming more and more dependent on. Imagine the affect and influence on our youth today if they see TV commercials showing the office worker parking his older run-of-the-mill car beside the new sports car whose driver gets out with his safety vest, hard hat, and tool belt. Or a commercial where a team of IT workers are sitting in front of a bunch of black screens waiting for the facilities operator to come save the day. This is where the critical facilities professional organizations have made some strides (but more is required), and where the industry in general hasn’t made enough investment. It is also where the government (including at the federal, state, and even local levels) have not recognized the need to invest in applicable training and education programs.
I recently discussed this topic with Peter Kazella, owner and president of Pkaza - Critical Facilities Recruiting (https://www.pkaza.com/). He agreed that a data center “job ladder” needs to be articulated through our school systems that promotes employment opportunities within data centers and critical facilities as desirable career paths. Peter said “schooling needs to be at the national level with technical schools. We need nationally recognized, accredited programs for data center specific areas that can ensure companies the graduates can do what the certification says. Apprenticeship programs would need to be part of the process of becoming certified.” He also mentioned that diversity is a “huge hot topic” with many employers actively seeking qualified new hires from traditionally underrepresented segments of the population, often the same people who may not have an opportunity to go the college route.
As equipment manufacturers continue to create more complex and capable systems and equipment, and as the data center and other highly innovative industries continue to evolve, the existing gap between traditional training and education programs to supply qualified entry-level talent grows, and the need for enhanced, focused critical facilities education and training becomes more pronounced. As the IT world continues to find more and more uses for computer technology (think IoT, edge computing, 5G, etc.), the need to build, operate, and maintain the physical buildings and infrastructure also increases. Neither has any value without the other. We need to get critical facilities, and just facilities in general, back on a level where they are valued more equitably.