Resolving the Critical Facilities Labor Shortage
A look at what the industry is offering in terms of training and recruiting.
My last article, “The Critical Facilities Labor Market,” discussed the current shortage of qualified and experienced labor. It focused on how the labor shortage came about and how it is impacting the overall industry. Basically, it honed in on the problem and associated causes. Much of the feedback I received was supportive, but some, especially from a long-time peer, Dennis Cronin (CEO of Resilient Solutions), also pointed out that there are some significant and tangible ongoing efforts to remediate the labor shortage. For this follow-up article, I’ve joined forces with Cronin to focus on how segments of the industry have recognized the labor challenges and initiated efforts to resolve the underlying causes. This includes public awareness campaigns promoting the critical facilities industry as providing desirable careers while concurrently developing professional development paths for those interested in pursuing these opportunities.
The Identity Crisis
Despite the job security and above-average compensation the critical facilities industry provides, it is yet to be recognized as a known career path. Most people outside of the industry consider data center careers as related to computer science, software programmers, and “app” developers. They associate data centers with IT careers. There are existing training programs for transitioning military personnel into the general labor market that suffer from the same lack of awareness.
To begin addressing this identity crisis, 7x24 Exchange Intl. declared Oct. 29 as International Data Center Day. This is an outreach program targeting critical facilities owners, users, operators, and support vendors around the globe to schedule local awareness events designed to promote the many opportunities in data center careers. A visit to the website
(www.internationaldatacenterday.org) reveals not only promotional narratives but also educational resources for use at elementary schools, high schools, and colleges. It has links to slide presentations, video presentations, and even scholarship and mentoring programs. I signed up to be a mentor, and I encourage everyone else to participate as well, in some way or another.
The Infrastructure Masons (iMasons) organization established an educational committee that, according to the website, has a mission to “increase the flow of talent into digital infrastructure industries by:
Raising awareness of career and educational opportunities among high school and post-secondary college, university, technical school, and professional students worldwide.
Identifying and partnering with high-quality training and education programs that help people enter and advance in the digital infrastructure industry.
Providing scholarships to students in and entering those partner education and training programs.
Supporting the development of curricula and training programs with partner institutions.”
There is also a significant industrywide effort to attract women and traditionally underrepresented segments of the potential workforce. Examples include the iMasons IM Women committee, whose website states “IM Women aims to increase diversity and, specifically, the number of women pursuing careers in technical infrastructure and data centers, and to increase the visibility and the career advancement of women currently working in technical infrastructure and data centers.”
The 7x24 Exchange has also championed this effort through its Women in Mission Critical Operations (WiMCO) communities. These networking and support groups are currently available at the Atlanta, Carolinas, Lake Michigan, New England, Northern California, and Washington, D.C., chapters and continue to gain traction. Another example is the upcoming ninth annual combined Building Commissioning Association/7x24 Tech summit, which will include a panel discussion on the challenges faced and opportunities available to women in the critical facilities arena.
Training, Education, and Vocational Programs
Even if we are successful in attracting the interest of potential career seekers to the critical facilities market, we also need to provide a means for this potential labor pool to gain the skills, knowledge, and qualifications to succeed. This may be the biggest area of ongoing development, with multiple options depending on one’s needs.
In 2013, a group of community colleges in North Carolina received a $23 million U.S. Department of Labor grant to develop a common core mission critical curriculum. With the assistance of more than 200 industry veterans, this curriculum was completed in 2017 and made available to the entire education community. The curricula development was led by Cleveland Community College, located in Shelby, North Carolina, with intense collaboration with the 7x24 Exchange Carolinas chapter and a consortium of other community colleges. The program now offers curricula that result in formal certifications up to and including associate degrees related to IT operations, critical infrastructure, automation and controls, and equipment maintenance. The training program and content has been embraced by the Northern Virginia Community College, where it has been enhanced and expanded with success. As interest grows, more colleges are looking to tap into the common core training content.
These community college training offerings include paths to attain various critical facility certifications (www.mccerts.com), including certified mission critical operator (CMCO) and certified mission critical professional (CMCP). Per the website, “It’s important to note that neither CMCO nor CMCP are IT certifications. In fact, they are specifically focused on protections and safety surrounding mission critical infrastructures.”
Marist College has one of the oldest critical facilities-related training programs in the nation and offers certificates in data center facilities. My review of its website and course descriptions found that the school’s primary focus is on IT-related topics, with only a cursory focus on facilities management and mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) infrastructure. They do offer a three-credit course called Advanced Facilities Management that provides a “technical overview of critical infrastructure, including energy conservation equipment, generation and transmission equipment, electrical safety, facilities engineering, systems maintenance, energy security, UPS systems, power transfer switch systems, standby generators, and data center energy efficiency.”
One of the most impressive critical facilities education programs has been implemented by Southern Methodist University as a master’s degree program. This program includes content on infrastructure engineering and design as well as critical facility management. Course titles include Power Management for Industrial and Mission Critical Facilities; Management of Industrial and Mission Critical Facilities; Disaster Management; Facility Planning; Introduction to Facility Engineering Systems; Electrical, Mechanical, and Piping Systems for Buildings; Energy Management for Buildings; Telecommunications for Data Systems Engineering; Critical Infrastructure Protection/Security Systems Engineering; Convection Cooling of Electronics; Conductive Cooling of Electronics; and Site Selection for Industrial and Mission-Critical Facilities.
A great example of how the federal government has collaborated and teamed with both universities and the industry to advance critical facilities-related research is the Energy Smart Electronic Systems (ES2) program. This program has received both support and funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF). Andrea Palmeri, managing director, Industry/University Cooperative Research Center for Energy-Smart Electronic Systems, Binghamton University, described ES2 as “an NSF-sponsored collaborative research center with three university partners — Binghamton University (SUNY), Villanova University, and the University of Texas Arlington — and several industry members, including Facebook, Bloomberg, Comcast, and Verizon, among others.
“Our research is focused on making electronic systems — primarily data centers — more energy efficient,” she continued. “We work closely with the industry to identify areas of research they deem important to achieving their corporate goals. These activities have been quite varied, ranging from the design of efficient air- and liquid-cooling systems and their control, to modeling and evaluating techniques to model and improve data center availability, to power distribution and automatic and dynamic management of IT equipment. The member companies have worked closely with faculty and students and provided valuable feedback on all aspects of the projects. Their membership in the center (ES2) is highly leveraged by allowing them access to any of the IP developed within the center, along with access to faculty and Ph.D.-level graduate students who are engaged in the research. Many of our members provide internships to our graduate students, and several have gone on to hire them after graduation.”
The ES2 initiative began with an initial NSF grant in 2011 and is currently operating under the third year of a phase-2 grant. Each participating university has independent and different resources, facilities, and laboratories supporting different aspects of critical facilities engineering, design, operations, and management. All ES2 sites operate extensive experimental facilities, including two sites with highly instrumented mid-scale data center laboratories that incorporate a variety of IT equipment and cooling technologies. These data centers are used to validate the technologies and models developed by ES2 in a practical setting. A significant amount of the equipment has been donated by member companies, and each university site has also made financial investments toward the construction of the laboratory facilities used by ES2. As membership and research have progressed, so has industry-related interest, support, and funding.
“NSF provides seed money,” Palmeri said. “The industry provides membership dollars that support the student researchers. However, the work of the center has enabled the universities to win funding from several other sources, including other federal grants, state grants, and grants from industry consortia.”
So far, ES2 activities have supported and involved 68 students, most at the master’s or doctoral levels. Forty-one of these students have graduated and are pursuing successful careers in technology areas related to data centers. The program certainly appears to be attractive to graduate students. The research is focused across the board on all aspects of data center energy efficiency, from the chip to the room, according to Palmeri.
So far, they have initiated 22 research projects, of which, 14 are currently active, while the others have been completed or extended to current projects.
Commercial Training Programs
There are many excellent commercial training programs available to interested students. These include DCPRO, The Uptime Institute, EUCI, CNET, BICSI, and others that offer programs ranging from topic-specific classes to full training programs available online, in-classroom, and sometimes on-premise by request. The challenge facing the commercial training programs is that they have yet to get together and agree on what students should come away with as foundational knowledge. Here’s a quick (and by no way comprehensive) review of some training offerings found.
Data Centre Dynamics owned DCPRO — not to be confused with USDOE/LBNL Data Center Profiler (DC Pro) tools — has both online and classroom courses ranging from one day to two weeks in length with certification exams following multiple tracks, including design, energy efficiency, operations, and technicians. Courses are grouped (with significant overlap) into curricula related to colocation providers, enterprise operators, technology vendors, and individuals.
EUCI offers Data Center Design & Construction, Site Selection, and Operations as one-day classes.
CNet has various two- to five-day classes, plus a master’s degree from the Associate College of Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, U.K. (CNet awarded Associate College status by Anglia Ruskin). USA-approved training providers are Concert Technologies Inc., ICT Training Group LLC, Mission Critical Training Services Inc., and New York Communications Training Center.
The Uptime Institute has three- to seven-day courses in Accredited Tier Designer, Accredited Tier Specialist, and Accredited Operations Specialist.
DOE/LBNL Data Center Energy Practitioner (DCEP) training was updated in 2016 and includes Generalist, HVAC Specialist, and IT Specialist certifications. The DCEP training includes instruction in the use of the DC Pro Tool.
As we all know, formal training and education is expensive. Over the last several years, industry organizations have created financial incentives, including scholarships and tuition reimbursement programs, to attract and develop new and existing talent. This year, iMasons has shot to the top with a goal of achieving $1 million in scholarships. The group has raised $179,470 (per its website) in donations so far from corporations, vendors, facility management firms, and individuals, and has already issued 12 scholarships.
The 7x24 Exchange has various international, national, and chapter-managed initiatives to promote information sharing, networking, and data center promotional events and programs. These include some ongoing scholarship programs managed at the local chapter level by the Lonestar, Rocky Mountain, Washington, D.C., and the Carolinas chapters. This year, the Carolinas chapter is offering four scholarships at local community colleges, including the aforementioned CMCO and CMCP programs, and the Metro New York chapter continues its annual University Challenge with an award to the winning university. Additional programs are spread across the 25 remaining 7x24 Exchange chapters as well as AFCOM local chapters.
These are just some of the happenings in the industry that are scaling up to meet the demand for skilled personnel. I would like to personally thank Cronin for providing much of the content and research associated with this article and for all his constructive feedback on my initial article that prompted this follow-up. If you know about other “happenings,” let’s hear about them. Send updates and success stories to me at email@example.com and Cronin at firstname.lastname@example.org.