Over the past year, much has been written about educating and preparing our next generation of data center operators to take over the day-to-day operations. The lack of skills, much less certified skills, has been and continues to be discussed in articles, on blogs, via webinars, and — if it weren’t for COVID-19 — at conferences too.
All this discussion is energizing many of our industry organizations to develop education committees, scholarship offerings, mentoring programs, and even capstone programs with a university or two. Academic programs are now established at a half dozen universities and in almost as many community colleges. Further, numerous commercial training offerings continue to expand and enhance their courses in a highly competitive market.
With explosive data center growth (pun intended) around the globe, employers are increasingly competing with other industries for highly disciplined transitioning military personnel with process management skills. So competitive is the market for these matured prospects, that several data center organizations have developed dedicated data center job training programs for transitioning military personnel. Lastly, the big operators (hyperscalers, colos, trusted service providers) are developing their own in-house courses to add to the knowledgebase of their employees and quicken the onboarding process.
Despite all these great efforts, the industry is still coming up short on people — even now, when mission critical facilities are one of the few bright spots when it comes to employment in 2020.
Most people who aren’t already in the data center industry are probably unaware it even exists. It is not established as a career path. While Generations X, Y, and Z make use of data center services every day, most of them couldn’t tell you what a data center is.
The industry needs to develop a cohesive awareness campaign focused on the younger generations —particularly Generation Z (born 1995 – 2012).
“Gen Z kids will grow up with a highly sophisticated media and computer environment and will be more internet savvy and expert than their Gen Y forerunners,” according to marketing research firm WJ Schroer Co.
Without a concerted effort explaining that the “cloud” is a data center somewhere, even this generation will lack awareness of data centers.
Like most people, students don’t know what they don’t know. The industry needs more outreach programs focused at the student level to help them to gain an interest in data centers as well as to start developing their basic skills. To succeed, these programs must be delivered in layman’s terms for the students and not be loaded with the typical engineering-ease so prevalent in the industry.
For many reasons, academics are notoriously slow to adopt new programs into their mainstream curriculums because they can be expensive to startup, especially without a solid client base to make it successful. If students are not aware of the great career opportunities in data centers, they are unlikely to sign up for a degree or certificate, so it’s not perceived to be in demand from the academic side despite the severe labor shortage.
It’s the responsibility of the human resources department to source the talent a company needs. When the labor pool starts to dry up, compensation increases and competitors vie for each other’s top employees. This addresses immediate hiring needs; however, it just exasperates the strain on skilled industry resources.
A few forward-thinking firms are upping their in-house training for entry-level positions, but these barely fill their own needs. Again, they are confronted by the lack of awareness from people outside of the industry.
But the difficulties do not stop there. HR is also challenged to evaluate a candidate’s skills. Again, the forward-thinking firms are now adding the Certified Mission Critical Operations (CMCO) certification to the job descriptions. This is an industry-developed exam administered by the nonprofit Mission Critical Global Alliance (MCGA) and confirms the individual demonstrates foundational data center skills.
Probably most damaging to the HR task is their company’s own self-inflicted demands for experience.
An evaluation of some 254 open positions showed an average 6.08 years of experience required. Only one position was entry-level. Data center construction positions were the only ones that didn’t require prior experience. The minimum experience requirement for a UPS technician was 2 years.
The pursuit of new talent is broken. Everybody wants experienced talent, but there is no way for the inexperienced to get experience, and the industry has yet to give much credence to academic degrees.
The commercial training certificates tend to be a little more welcomed, but they typically apply to highly specific subsets of the data center environment that may or may not be included on job descriptions, which are usually multidisciplinary.
Following awareness, the industry needs to develop programs that teach the lingo, introduce various pieces of equipment found in data centers, and enable prospects to develop the necessary skills. In effect, the industry needs to develop the equivalent of a flight simulator for data centers. Every employer wants experienced talent. If a flight simulator can train a pilot to safely fly several hundred people thousands of miles, then there is no reason a data center simulator can’t train the next generation of data center operators.
A Silver Lining
With a continued concerted effort, all the above will take years to satisfy the industry’s insatiable needs for new talent. So, what is the industry to do? Wake up!
COVID-19 has caused enormous disruption in employment, but the flip side of that is the immediate availability of experienced, highly skilled, and dedicated talent. Aircraft builders have announced lay- offs of more than 20,000 employees. Airlines have laid off tens of thousands more. Both groups employed highly skilled technicians, engineers, and managers that dealt with data center technologies every day.
What about that aircraft technician that fixes a plane’s avionics, so my delayed flight gets off the ground?
What about that engine mechanic who ensures the engine will not fail in flight?
What about the aircraft design engineer who must integrate all the control systems?
What about all the networking engineers who keep these vast operations connected with one another?
There is suddenly a vast experienced talent pool available. Who is going to tap it?