Across the pond, a group of prominent organizations is making headway in tackling the digital infrastructure industry’s ongoing talent shortage by teaming up with specialist university technical colleges to educate young people in a data center-focused curriculum named the Digital Futures Program.

The collaborative is known as ALET UTCs & Partners, so called because of its partnership with Activate Learning Education Trust (ALET) University Technical Colleges (UTCs). The program launched with its first cohort of data-center focused students in September 2021. The objective is to create opportunities for students to gain the awareness, skills, and knowledge needed to start careers in the digital infrastructure industry and, therefore, tackle the talent shortage that we’ve all been talking about for so long.

The Digital Futures Program was an immediate success within the industry — recognized with three global awards within a 12-month period. But, more importantly, it saw huge success among young learners, resulting in such high demand that the program is now being rolled out to three further UTCs. Currently in its third academic year, the initiative is making progress in attracting new talent to the industry, establishing a stronger and more diverse sector, and providing opportunities for businesses and individuals to thrive, helping to build a talent pathway and support the wider society.

Mission Critical recently sat down with Sarah Parks, director of marketing and communications for CNet Training, to find out more about the program.

The Digital Futures Program is a three-year data-center-focused curriculum that is being delivered by the UTCs and supporting industry partners. Image courtesy of CNet Training

Mission Critical: What is the Digital Futures Program?

ParksThe Digital Futures Program is a three-year, data-center focused curriculum that is being delivered by the UTCs and supporting industry partners. It demonstrates high academic and technical ambition for all pupils, building the vital employability skills, personal values, and professional behaviors required for rapid progression into the digital infrastructure industry.

Mission Critical: Who is the program designed for?

Parks: The program is for 14- to 18-year-old students who combine the Digital Futures Program with engineering qualifications to give them the best possible start to a career in the digital infrastructure industry.

Mission Critical: How can the program be used in the U.S.?

Parks: The initiative seeks to prove how companies can collaborate with competitors and work together with schools and colleges to create clear educational pathways that prepare young people for a career in the digital infrastructure industry. It is a sustainable, scalable, and replicable model that could be utilized in any country across the world where industry employers and education providers are able to form a partnership to work together.

Mission Critical: What is a university technical college?

Parks: UTCs are government funded schools for 14- to 18-year-olds that teach science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM)-related core subjects, as well as technical qualifications, in partnership with local employers and universities. They provide a unique and contemporary approach to education, which addresses the changing needs of students and employers. The initiative is being trialed in the UK but has the potential to be rolled out across the world. Each UTC focuses on a technical specialty that meets the skills shortages of the region in which it is based. UTC Heathrow, based in northwestern London, was selected as the inaugural location for the Digital Futures Program due to its proximity to large data center sites and operators. Digital infrastructure industry companies and universities work together in such areas where there is a high demand for talent, assisting UTCs in providing sought after technical qualifications, industry standard equipment, and specialist staff to give students the skills valued by employers. UTCs provide an education that encourages lifelong learning by empowering students with transferable engineering skills, helping them to become responsible engineers to meet the needs of the digital infrastructure industry and, therefore, help shape the future of the industry.

Mission Critical: How many students are involved?

Parks: Each UTC can accept 150 students per year onto the Digital Futures Program. Across four UTCs delivering the program, this will be a total of 600 students per academic year who have had experience, great exposure to the digital infrastructure industry, and are work ready. Imagine what could be achieved if this model was replicated worldwide!

Mission Critical: How did the initiative begin?

Parks: CNet Training is one of the founding partners of the ALET UTCs & Partners initiative. CNet CEO Andrew Stevens was instrumental in bringing the initiative to fruition. Since 2008, he has been striving to convene industry competitors and convince them to join forces with one aim in mind — to create a clear career pathway into the industry for young people. CNet is the global leader of technical education dedicated to the digital infrastructure industry, comprising the data center and network infrastructure sectors. CNet’s commitment as a company stems from Andrew’s passion to attract, develop, and retain talent at scale. This goal is not something CNet limits to within its organization or to helping customers with; it is a commitment that extends on an industrywide scale. To deliver on this, Andrew realized early on that it would take commitment from more than just the CNet team to produce the desired effect.

The concept of partnering with a UTC was championed by Andrew in collaboration with Lord Kenneth Baker, a member of England’s House of Lords and ex-Education Secretary for the U.K. It sought to unite industry partners to shape and deliver a curriculum dedicated to the digital infrastructure industry to tackle the skills shortage and create a pipeline of new talent to join the industry. After extensive discussions between Andrew and Lord Baker, Andrew was introduced to Mike Halliday of the pioneering education group ALET. With the combined efforts of Andrew, Lord Baker, ALET, and the founding industry partners, the first dedicated data center UTC — UTC Heathrow — was established.

Mission Critical: Who are the partners?

Parks: Alongside household names, such as Amazon Web Services (AWS) and CBRE, there are a host of organizations that may not be well-known to the general public but are determined to make sure the next generation knows what the digital infrastructure industry does, why it’s so important in today’s connected world, and what career opportunities are available within it.

Our Trust partners include AWS, Ark Data Centers, CBRE, CNet Training, CyrusOne, Digital Realty, LMG, Virtus Data Centers, and Yondr Group. They support all ALET UTCs that deliver the Digital Futures Program. There are also individual UTC partners that support one of the UTCs within the ALET group.

Mission Critical: What do partners do?

Parks: Each Trust partner that supports ALET UTCs commits valuable funding and, arguably even more importantly, time to help create and deliver the data center-focused curriculum. Partners work to:

  • Collaborate to create the curriculum and ensure it's relevant to the data center sector.
  • Regularly attend UTC open events to recruit new students.
  • Co-teach Projects = deliver specialist activities within the engineering curriculum to provide contextual learning and an in-depth understanding of the data center environment
  • Co-teach Workshops = activities to help students to develop the employability skills needed in the world of work
  • Run Challenge Days = students work in teams alongside industry partners
  • Support the students holistically throughout their time at college, for example, CyrusOne scoped, planned, and built a multi-sports court for the enjoyment of students at UTC Heathrow to significantly enhance the learning environment. Partners hosted a student VIP zone at Data Centre World 2023, giving students the opportunity to meet, interact with and interview individuals from across the industry
  • Actively promote UTCs, the objectives, positive benefits and highlight what can be achieved when the data center sector works together, through press exposure, writing industry articles, participation in panel sessions, etc.
  • Build relationships with the students and can therefore help to mentor them through the program
  • Offer work placements to help students practice and further develop the skills needed to secure world-class careers, enabling students to make a great impression with potential employers and to learn more about the careers available in the digital infrastructure industry

Mission Critical: Why are companies collaborating?

Parks: These Partner companies recognize that collaboration is needed if we have any chance of making the impact required to raise awareness of this industry and recruit young people to choose a career within it. They have united to build a skills pipeline to support the digital transformation across the UK and to provide young people with the pathway to securing world-class careers. Designed to tackle the long-term shortages in the industry’s skills pipeline, this initiative unites leading data center companies to collaborate to help strengthen the future workforce of the data center sector.

Mission Critical: What are the outcomes for students following the program?

Parks: The program focuses on introducing the younger generation to the digital infrastructure industry, closing the skills gap, and providing a credible education pathway for students to a valuable technical career. Students meet and work with world-leading organizations to enter the world of work at the age of 18 through direct employment, apprenticeships or following university studies. On completion of the Digital Futures Program, students will have completed multiple projects led by industry-leading employers, visited a data center, undertaken work placements, and built relationships with industry partners to create opportunities for careers, either through direct employment, as apprentices or as graduates following university studies. An unanticipated benefit of the Program is that students’ families are also becoming aware of opportunities in the sector and starting careers in the industry themselves! This is an example of the huge potential for the momentum of this amazing initiative to cascade out to many other people, simply by talking more about the industry and the opportunities available within it.

Mission Critical: What is the future of the program?

Parks: The evolution of this initiative is continuing as more organizations join the partnership and awareness – and demand – for the program grows. If you’d like to get involved in the program, or are interested in replicating it, contact to learn more.