I have the opportunity to meet a lot of people in the data center industry, and it’s fascinating to hear how varied everyone’s professional training and educational backgrounds are. There are folks with computer science degree, English degrees, philosophy degrees, and lots of engineering degrees. But, there are also people whose talents launched them right into important tech jobs without formal degrees. The one thing you don’t see among experienced data center professionals, though, are degrees that are actually focused on data centers.

The reason for that is pretty simple: There was no such thing back when we were getting our educations. Everyone who has built a career of any length in data centers started in a different discipline, and many had long careers in completely different industries before entering this field. As a result, people in the data center industry tend to be older than others in the technology industry. Simply put, there’s a lot of gray hair in the white space. There’s nothing wrong with that until everyone retires at the same time. And that’s exactly what our industry is facing — 30% of current data center personnel are expected to “gray out” over the next few years. That is a tsunami of retirements racing toward us, so we need to have a plan.  

That brings me back to the topic I started with: data center degrees. Our industry fueled the past two decades of growth by recruiting professionals from other industries with a collective patchwork of educational and training backgrounds. But the next phase of our industry’s growth requires a workforce that has more unified training based on recognition that planning, designing, building, and operating data centers has become a discipline unto itself — a discipline that can be taught in colleges and universities in the same way disciplines like structural engineering and computer science are.

Academic degree programs focused on data centers are essential to developing the next generation of workers at a pace that will keep up with the growth of our industry —and the impending retirement of so many long-time data center professionals. SMU’s master's in data center systems engineering program was designed to serve as a model for the creation of similar programs throughout the country.

Ambrose McNevin said, “[This industry needs] a clear framework for professional development. Understanding the foundational factors or data center design concepts associated with many disciplines and their interdependencies is key.” And SMU's new program  was founded to fulfill that need. It was developed through a partnership between SMU’s Lyle College of Engineering and professionals in the data center industry who served as advisors on the curriculum, including respected data center experts from companies like Microsoft, Switch, Dun & Bradstreet, and Compass Datacenters.

The goal was to develop a multidisciplinary degree incorporating each of SMU’s engineering departments: electrical and computer egineering, mechanical engineering, computer science, engineering management, information and systems, and civil and environmental engineering. Along with its core classes in the engineering aspects of the data center, the curriculum includes courses in real estate and finance to provide students with the comprehensive skill set that today’s data center organizations require.

This program at SMU has been followed by degree programs at other institutions, including Texas A&M, Marist College, Cleveland College, and community colleges across the U.S. These programs not only give a growing number of students the skills to excel in our industry but also put a bright spotlight on the great career opportunities in the data center industry, so we can compete against other industries for the best and brightest.

So what should your organization be doing to help foster these programs and train that next generation? One key step is to engage with universities and colleges in your back yard to start talking about the kind of partnerships that are a cornerstone of these educational programs. There are proven models for these programs, and you can play a leadership role in establishing and building similar degree programs that are right for the institution you engage with.

Another important step is to get involved with organizations like iMasons that are playing a leadership role on this issue across the U.S. and internationally. iMasons has made these higher education initiatives a core part of its mission, and its members are serving as catalysts for many of these collaborations. iMasons has also generously created scholarships for students of need to enter these degree programs. If your organization is not yet involved in education-focused efforts, I strongly encourage you and your company to get involved. Not only is it deeply rewarding, but it is also critical for the future of our industry.