Let’s Focus on the Solution, Not the Problem
Yes, there’s a labor shortage problem, but there are efforts being made to solve it
With so many industry conversations focused on the mission critical (MC) skills shortage, I decided to dedicate this column to it. This is not to rehash the shortage discussion but to inform readers about the solutions that are being implemented around the globe. Indeed, there are many ongoing efforts that are gaining market acceptance. My intention is to provide awareness of the many training and educational options that are available to the industry right now.
We hope you will join us on this journey of “Sharing the Knowledge” and write to us about your own positive experiences and identify any educational resources we miss.
The mission critical industry, and specifically the data center market, continues to evolve and mature. Gone are the days of simply keeping the power on and the air moving. The industry’s zeal to drive ever greater cost/unit reductions has gone unabated. It is because the continued focus on cost metrics that we now have operations that are fully integrated.
There are hot/cold aisle containments, integrated cooling at the rack level, multiple tiers of reliability designs, plus many derivatives of the basic four tiers. For the last two decades, the market has been touting increased rack densities that are only now being seen. The 15-, 20-, and 60-Kw rack densities have arrived and they’re driving the average Kw per rack from 5 to 11 kW and greater.
This recent rapid growth is challenging the skills of those who must meet the demand with whatever limited knowledge they have at their disposal. Furthermore, increased density of compute power at the rack level translates into significantly increased liabilities should a system fail or even have a momentary operational abnormality. This is all part of what is driving the market to demand greater knowledge of their personnel, yet, until recently, employers have not had a means of evaluating the basic skills of their existing or potential staff.
Way back in 2013 (ancient history in our world), the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) had the foresight to see the pending data center skills shortage and issued a $23 million grant to develop a mission critical curriculum for colleges (more about that in a future column) and an independent skills certification known today as the Certified Mission Critical Operator (CMCO) program. For 3.5 years, 200-plus subject matter experts worked together to develop the unbiased and universally applicable details of the two programs.
The skills certification is an industry exam much like a CPA or PE exam. To pass it, you need the basic academic knowledge (community college, trade school, commercially offered data center training, etc.) about data center operations, plus a years’ worth of actual field experience. The details can be found at www.mccerts.com.
The exam tests for fundamental knowledge across seven domains.
- Mission critical infrastructure
- Safety, security, and emergency response
- Critical production space
- Facility and system documentation
- Networking and communications
- Real-time information management
- Operations and procedures
Historically, data center staff have been very strong in just one or two of these domains. As data centers have matured and become more integrated, the breadth of required staff skills/knowledge has increased markedly. Electrical and mechanical knowledge alone are no longer sufficient. Today’s staff need to be able to operate sophisticated building information modeling (BIM)-based automation systems, program PLC’s, know fire codes, file environmental permits, maintain extensive operating metrics, maintain electronically based maintenance programs, interpret fuel oil analytics, and be as green as can be.
The certification process provides two direct benefits to employers
1. Existing staff — Current staff have most likely grown up through the ranks and are really good in a few but not all of the domains. Taking the exam will tell them where they need skills enhancement. Further, if done on a companywide basis, the employer can evaluate where staff skills need support and design training programs specifically to address those areas.
2. Prospective new hires — In the past, an employer had no means of objectively comparing the skills of potential new hires. Now, with the CMCO program, one can readily identify résumés of candidates with known test results. The hiring employer can cut through the mountains of résumés and focus on those with the certified fundamental
skills. From there, it is a matter of evaluating candidates’ personalities and whether or not they fit the company culture.
At most sites, much of the former in-house staff have been replaced by third-party service organizations or multiple specialty service vendors reporting to a staff manager. In these cases, it is just as important for these vendor personnel to be certified as it is for the staff they replaced. The data center operator (owner/investor) still needs assurance that the individuals entering their data center fully understand how their actions/activities relate to all the other ongoing operations.
Things like standard operating procedures (SOPs), maintenance operating procedures (MOPs), safety protocols, and change management must be taken seriously, lest a disaster happen. Note: The need for data center skills and operational knowledge are not unique to one class of individual but apply to everyone and anyone who works in and around the data center no matter their role.
There has been much discussion around the future automation of data centers that will, in part, address some of the skills shortage. Indeed, automation is making great inroads on data center operations.
So, I put the question to John-David Enright, CEO of TMGcore, manufacturer of OTTO (www.tmgcore.com). An operational OTTO was recently displayed at Supercomputing 2019 in Denver. The pitch on OTTO is that it is a completely automated, self-contained, two-phase liquid immersion-cooled data center platform that features a closed-loop system, uses zero water, and is 1/10 of the size of a traditional data center. By using OTTO, clients can cut operational costs by 80% while receiving 10 times more processing power per square foot.
Sounds like problem solved — no staff needed. But Enright had a more realistic view.
“Data center technicians, in the traditional sense, will be phased out in time,” he said. “However, an exciting new opportunity arises to have OTTO technology-related service technicians who are highly skilled in robotics, programming, fluid management, and remote support functions.”
A recent advertisement by Pearson in the Nov. 17, 2019, New York Times magazine nailed it. The ad read:
“For generations, education was finite: K-12, college, cap and gown, done. Now, people need more. Today’s reality requires new thinking, new technology, and new tools devised for the talent economy — nothing less than a redesign of learning.”
In the next column, I will explore the educational offerings of traditional colleges and universities, followed by the development of knowledge databases, and then take a deep dive into all the commercially available data center programs and how they, too, are evolving.