Today we conclude our Data Center Executive Roundtable, a quarterly feature showcasing the insights of thought leaders on the state of the data center industry, and where it is headed. In today’s discussion, our panel of experienced data center executives – Ted Behrens of Chatsworth Products, Corey Dyer from Digital Realty, Sabey Data Centers’ Tim Mirick, Phillip Marangella of EdgeConneX, John Hewitt of Vertiv and Steven Lim of RagingWire/NTT Global Data Centers – discuss the staffing and workforce development challenges facing the data center industry.
The conversation is moderated by Rich Miller, the founder and editor of Data Center Frontier.
Data Center Frontier: Is the data center industry making progress on its staffing challenges? What are the most important steps to ensure a vibrant future workforce?
John Hewitt (Vertiv): Great question. Yes, we’re making progress, but it’s slower than we’d like. According to the Data Center 2025 survey, 16% of all participants expect to retire by 2025, and that number is a whopping 33% in the U.S. That is a significant loss of talent and institutional knowledge that would be difficult to manage under ideal circumstances. Couple that with the ongoing changes in the industry, including the shift to the edge and more distributed networks, and those losses add a layer of complexity and uncertainty to an already complex ecosystem.
Part of the solution is technology-driven, and we’re already seeing artificial intelligence and machine learning applied in ways that help organizations bridge that knowledge gap. But there are limits to the impact technology can have. The industry needs an influx of new data center personnel, not just to backfill an aging workforce, but also to bring new thinking and ideas to the industry at this time of change. On that front, we have a lot of work to do. There are a limited number of data center-focused degree programs available in the U.S. and Europe, and those programs are scrambling to keep up with the changes across the industry. For some organizations, the solution has been to take training in-house.
Vertiv is working on both fronts, developing more intelligent solutions while simultaneously building out internal training programs to better develop our staff. We also have robust internship programs, allowing new generations of potential IT professionals to benefit from mentoring from experienced professionals.
Corey Dyer (Digital Realty): There are definitely still staffing challenges for the data center industry, but for us at Digital Realty, we’ve been able to address those challenges by thinking differently about the way we attract and keep talent. It used to be that we were looking for employees that had significant data center work experience, but that can be a small pool of people and unnecessarily limiting. Now we’re focused on finding and developing a pipeline of talent that have the right technical skills, even if they don’t have any data center experience, because we’re able to teach them the skill set they need to develop into their role and beyond. We’ve found a lot of success partnering with local colleges and universities to reach students, and hiring veterans through our internal veterans employee resource group. While they may not have any data center experience, they’re trained with the right technical skills that can transfer to the data center.
Of course there’s a lot of fierce competition for talent, especially in popular regions like Ashburn, Virginia. So to ensure a vibrant future workforce, you need to be giving your employees good benefits, a supportive culture and successful work environment. We have a group of employees, the Digital Realty Culture Club-Ashburn Campus, who do a lot of great work to help on this front. Employees want to like the people they work with, enjoy their work environment, and feel like they have the opportunity to move up in their career path. What Digital Realty does well is foster an environment where employees have the freedom to make career choices that are best for them. For instance, someone in operations has the opportunity to move into other business areas by gaining experience and preparing themselves when opportunities arise.
“Diversity and inclusion initiatives, like those promoted by the Infrastructure Masons, will be key to expand the labor pool in the data center industry.”
Phillip Marangella, EdgeConneX
On a basic level, a vibrant workforce should be a place where people from different and diverse backgrounds can work together to create a great product in a great environment. At Digital Realty, we’ve been fortunate to work with some of the best people in the industry and help foster a better community in the areas that we operate in.
Tim Mirick (Sabey Data Centers): The industry has made progress, but it takes all of us to do our part in championing the new and existing programs. For example, in Central Washington we are proud to work with Big Bend Community College and support its data center technician program. They have now graduated two classes and many of the men and women have been employed by the data center cluster in Quincy and East Wenatchee, including two by Sabey.
To support the program, we work closely with the school to assist with curriculum development, job shadowing opportunities, and student mentorship. Most recently we participated in a job fair at the college and our General Manager spoke to the class on the industry. We have been investing in Central Washington for over a decade, and through sustained effort we are meeting industry needs and creating meaningful employment opportunities.
Steven Lim (RagingWire/NTT): Staffing continues to be a challenge in certain markets, but there are solutions, including:
- Offer a range of career options and locations — Having a diverse national and global footprint is a big plus, as that creates attractive opportunities for candidates to move into regions that have attributes which are appealing to them. Also, offer ways for a candidate to begin a career in one department and train to transition to a different department if they wish.
- Look far and wide – While targeted needs can be filled by recruiting companies, part of the process to find the best candidates is to broaden your scope to look for the right candidates. We have found that a very important quality in candidates is aptitude, not necessarily technical ability. People outside the data center industry, sometimes from the military or law enforcement industries, can often learn data center tasks quickly.
- Don’t be fooled by job titles – Be mindful that job titles and descriptions vary by company, so just because someone doesn’t currently have the exact job title you’re trying to fill, they may be doing the same tasks under a different job title. If candidates have worked in high-value, three-phase power, they have the background to work in data centers. They know more than they think, particularly if they’ve worked with generators, AC, etc.
- Find ways to engage with students – Develop a team to engage with middle schools and high schools to educate students about what data centers are, and the career opportunities within them. Reach out to a university to propose a program like the data center operations specialization that we helped pioneer at Northern Virginia Community College.
Ted Behrens (Chatsworth Products): As with so many mission critical industries, the primary focus of the data center industry is to deliver services or products on time and on budget, and the pressure to perform is unrelenting. Companies must take seriously the succession planning of those who are to execute on these key deliverables in the future, with the institutionalization of mentorships and internships.
Providing a broader workforce with the tools and experience will be the key differentiator of those companies that endure as opposed to the ones that fade.
Phillip Marangella (EdgeConneX): It is making some progress. Diversity and inclusion initiatives, like those promoted by the Infrastructure Masons, will be key to expand the labor pool in the data center industry. Similarly, encouraging more degrees focused on the sector will be key to attract the next generation of data center experts. At the same time, innovations in robotics and automation will also alleviate many work functions in the data center.
NEXT: What’s the state of edge computing as we enter 2020?
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