There hasn’t been enough discussion about introducing data center education to community colleges and trade schools as a way to solve the industry’s growing talent gap. Narrowly focused recruiting efforts, poor transparency across the industry, and minimal promotion of how great it can be to work in data centers has led to a labor shortage.

Incorporating data center education into college curricula is a cost-effective option for closing the talent gap because, instead of relying on third-party partners, upskilling existing workers, or poaching employees from direct competitors, we’ll be able to grow new data center professionals.

But, like all good ideas, implementing this one isn’t without challenges. So, let’s take a look at what needs to happen in order to start making it a reality.

Meet People Where They Live

Like residential real estate, data centers are all about location, location, location. The buildings are generally located close to internet exchanges in network-dense areas but also happen to be heavily populated by businesses.

It also means those areas tend to be densely populated with people who don’t already work in the data center industry. This represents an untapped market of potential employees, provided we can create opportunities for them to develop the skills and knowledge required.

The good news is that the geographic targets for building data center education programs are somewhat limited. Northern Virginia, for example, is the center of the data center universe, with more facilities than anywhere else in the country if not the world. It makes more sense to focus time and attention on incorporating education programs here or in other areas, like Silicon Valley, Chicago, and Denver, that are rapidly becoming data center hubs than it does in places like Nebraska, Kansas, or the Dakotas.

Still, we have to be strategic about our outreach efforts and communication with these communities to get them interested and excited about this kind of career. That means developing a communications program aimed at local high schools to help administrators incorporate messaging about this promising career option and to help students visualize what a future in data centers could entail.

Key Steps to Creating a Program

Beyond merely creating a market for data center programs within community colleges and trade schools, there are also practical factors at play.

Building suitable data center lab environments —Data centers are marvels of electrical and mechanical engineering, which require extensive training and hands-on experience. So, it’s essential to get students working in a real-life environment, which will require building and managing a data center “lab” to replicate the experience.

Though this isn’t particularly challenging, it’s also not fast or cheap. Schools would need to seek partnerships with local data centers to acquire the equipment and then find a third-party project manager to oversee it. They might also need (with the help of their data center partners) to collaborate with local or state governments to line up grants or other funding to help with the costs.

Assembling a teaching team — From there, the next step is to find people who can actually teach the curricula. Since there's a lot more money to be made working in data centers than teaching kids about it, it can be a hard sale to get data center professionals to give up their time and expertise when there’s no direct benefit to them.

We’ll need to get creative with the ways we recruit teachers, particularly emphasizing the opportunity to elevate their personal brand or profile within the data center community. Additionally, it doesn’t have to be a full-time gig. Instructors can sign up for guest lectures or single-session courses.

Refine and expand the curriculum — All careers are multifaceted, and working in a data center is no different. While data centers are tech-heavy operations, they also need business leaders, marketers, salespeople, and finance and accounting professionals.

Introducing real data center education into colleges and trade schools means we’ll need to incorporate curriculum beyond just technology-related material. We should aim to include leadership training and development as well as survey courses for other functional areas of the operation.

But, unlike the four-year university model, where students have to get new books every year that cost hundreds of dollars, this program would be delivered via lower-cost community colleges and feature digital content funded by government programs and private donations that would be either very low-cost or free to students, enabling more students from more diverse backgrounds to engage with minimal barriers.

Promotion to create an eager pool of learners — The final step in the process is to fill the classes with eager students. Many students and families in lower-income areas might not be aware of how lucrative data center positions — even entry level ones — can be.

Data centers can greatly improve the chances of these programs gaining adoption across campuses by actively participating in high school and college career days, helping students put a human face on those monolithic buildings they see on the side of the highway. Getting out into the community and engaging with students, their friends, and their families breaks down the air of mystery around data centers that we’ve created for ourselves over the years and gives them a peek into a future they never knew was possible for them.

We can also broach dual-enrollment opportunities for high school students, similar to how collegiate-level math and science courses are available to high-achieving high schoolers, to extend the reach of our message and do it earlier in the educational process.

None of this will be easy or necessarily quick. But it’s a viable and reasonable path for generating opportunities for these communities while creating a permanent solution to the staffing crisis we all face.