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Make data centers appeal to the next generation

(Image credit: Image Credit: Welcomia / Shutterstock)

Half of existing staff in the data center industry will retire within the next five years, according to Vertiv’s Data Center 2025 report. The industry is facing a skills shortage and unless we begin to tackle it now, it is going to get significantly bigger. Businesses are already struggling to find the right candidates as the appeal of working for tech giants continues to dominate the market, and recruitment teams are feeling the pressure to keep up with the demand for new talent.

In addition, global crises force people to reflect on their careers which can instigate change. A study from PeopleCert highlights that almost half of the workforce have considered a career change during the current pandemic. The industry needs to be proactive to address the skills gap that is coming its way. It's only by taking action on retention and recruitment now that they will have the right talent in place by 2025.

Capture the next generation's attention

A key factor in the data center skills gap is an aging workforce. This means we must look to the next generation. Our research showed that over 40 percent of respondents struggled to find qualified graduates. This is unsurprising given that STEM graduates are in demand and can largely take their pick when it comes to job opportunities. A recent Engineering UK report stated that the UK needs about 90,000 engineering graduates to enter the workforce in 2020 to meet demand and fill job roles. The demand for STEM graduates will continue to accelerate, so it’s only going to get harder to attract and retain top talent. 

To tackle this, we must work as an industry to attract more graduates. We must accept that the majority of students may not know what a data center is, and why it is so crucial to our daily lives. Tech giants like Spotify, Netflix and Google make headlines on a daily basis, and these companies have gained serious traction amongst students who work extremely hard for a place on their graduate schemes. To attract top graduates, the data center industry needs to be louder and bolder in its approach. We should raise awareness that data center infrastructure is critical to these giant’s services, and ultimately the digital lives we lead today. Only then will graduate schemes and job roles grab the attention of students, graduates and the existing workforce.

Time for an upgrade

The Data Center 2025 report also found that about 20 percent of respondents cite staff retention as a key concern. This was up from 17 percent in 2018, and likely to be even higher this year as reports surface that tech talent is becoming highly sought after amid COVID-19. However, there is a huge opportunity for the data center industry to tackle this with a fresh approach to retention strategy.

Technology is also a powerful force in staff retention as it can free up staff to focus on the part of their jobs they most enjoy. Companies are using automation, AI and machine learning to take on repetitive and mundane tasks across recruitment, customer support and finance; giving time back to employees to focus on strategic priorities. For data centers, automation can also be used to support engineers. As an example, it can be in the form of handling basic maintenance or troubleshooting - even if it is just stepping in until an expert can visit the site. This reduces the pressure on existing engineers, and leads to a happier, more productive work environment and loyal employees.

While these emerging technologies have an important role to play, they are not the ultimate solution. As digital transformation escalates, the data center industry, and indeed the technology industry at large, will rely on highly skilled people to drive innovation and respond to fast-changing market dynamics. In the shorter-term, businesses are increasingly relying on outsourcing in order to obtain the specialist skills required but we must look at how to adapt our business cultures to attract more talent in the long run.

Create a culture change

The PeopleCert findings, referenced above, suggest that all industries will now be faced with the challenge of retaining and attracting staff who are looking for more flexibility and autonomy over their working days. It’s also important to note that those who are looking to move jobs as a result of the pandemic will be looking for employers who are good corporate citizens – those who have treated all employees equally, providing support for both them and local communities. This means that companies need to ramp up their culture, and embrace an agile way of working for the long-term. When offices begin to reopen, we must ensure that we are demonstrating a people first approach and look to keep remote working options open and accepting flexible working hours for the future.

Demonstrating that your employees safety and wellbeing is your number one priority will not only mean your current employees feel valued and remain productive in the safest way possible, but this management style will make the company a more appealing employer to people who are looking for new career opportunities.

Tackle inequalities and start tapping into the global talent pool

The data center industry has a diversity issue. Last year, the Uptime Institute published a report on privately owned enterprise data centers which found that a quarter of managers had no women among their design or operational staff. Only 5 percent of respondents said women represented 50 percent or more of their workforce. These figures must be a call to action for the data center industry, and we should ask ourselves what we can do to change them.

The first, and easiest, thing to do is ask existing female employees what, if any, struggles they have faced or are currently dealing with in the workplace, and what they feel would make a difference. Second, really listen to their feedback and take action that aligns with this. Whether it’s engaging BAME students during their school or university careers, creating a mentoring program to support female graduates, or showing commitment to flexible working that supports the diverse needs of your workforce.

It’s also important to recognize that suitable talent exists outside of the data center sector. The global talent pool has endless prospective employees who have experience working in a mission-critical environment, or have transferable skills combined with a fresh perspective on the industry. These people could prove a valuable resource; a diverse pool of talent equates to a stronger, more skillful company.

Businesses must show they are committed to changing their approach and take the right actions to build out their talent pools now. This will unlock great opportunities for the data center industry’s future.

As part of Vertiv’s efforts to address the data center skills gap, we have created a new graduate program, Vertiv Next Generation. This is the first of a series of events from Vertiv, which aim to provide advice and guidance for future careers in the digital world. This 18-month program is structured around core data center business functions. It was promoted at Vertiv’s recent virtual career fair (22nd April), where 387 people registered and participants joined from 38 countries. And for those of you already well established in the industry interested to see what your future career role might be, take the Data Center Career Simulator and get a real-time video and PDF to find out.

Simon Blake, EMEA marketing director, Vertiv (opens in new tab)

Simon Blake, EMEA marketing director at Vertiv.