How are data centre providers offering a solution to the widening skills gap?

How are data centre providers offering a solution to the widening skills gap?

Kao Data, the specialist developer and operator of high-performance data centres for enterprise, cloud, HPC and AI, has launched the Kao Academy – an industry-first science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) resource, designed to engage primary and early secondary school-aged children with the purpose and role of a data centre.

Created in collaboration with Cambridge Science Centre, an independent, educational charity, the Kao Academy will help teach children aged 7-11 about the role of a data centre, how they’re designed, engineered and constructed, and explain both their importance and relevance to our everyday lives.

Delivered via an interactive website, the Kao Academy provides users with several dedicated resources, including a live ‘data-crunching’ game, a downloadable ‘how-to’ pack which children can download to build their own data centre, as well as educational videos on how Kao Data’s award-winning KLON-1 facility in Harlow was constructed. Participants can also download additional e-learning resources to learn and play, and take part in a competition to get creative and design their own data centre, potentially winning £150 of LEGO and earning a special visit to the Kao Data campus in Harlow.

Encouraging STEM education from early years has been proven to be beneficial across the entire spectrum of learning and can influence both a student’s future academic and career choices. Through the Kao Academy, Kao Data aims to engage the next generation of technology enthusiasts at Key Stage 2 level and encourage them to take an active interest in science and engineering, potentially even leading to some children pursuing future careers within the data centre industry.

The data centre skills shortage has long been hailed as one of the industry’s most significant challenges and in 2021, the Uptime Institute estimated staff requirements within the sector would grow to almost 2.3 million by 2025. STEM subjects have long been synonymous with the data centre industry and children who excel in science, technology, engineering and mathematics are expected to play a key role in both the growth of the UK digital economy and the country’s future as it continues to reinforce its position as a global leader in tech.

Kao Data has long-championed science and technology and the company is named after Sir Charles Kao, who in 1966 first discovered and pioneered the use of optical fibre technology on the campus where Kao Data’s high-performance Harlow data centres reside. This scientific breakthrough paved the way for the birth of the Internet, cloud and supercomputing. Fittingly, the UK’s fastest supercomputer, NVIDIA’s Cambridge-1, is located at Kao Data, using the same technology to identify breakthroughs in digital biology and healthcare.

“Data centres are today instrumental to our way of life – they underpin many of our daily activities, support our work, entertainment, retail and financial choices, facilitate human inter-communication and were fundamental in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Adam Nethersole, Vice President, Kao Data. “Despite all of this, general understanding and appreciation of data centres is surprisingly low. Starting with children, and through the Kao Academy, our mission is to drive greater awareness of data centres, their crucial role and showcase the people who design, build and operate them.”

We hear from data centre experts who tell us how they’re offering a solution to the widening skills gap…

Rhonda Ascierto, Vice President, Research, Uptime Institute: “We forecast that global digital infrastructure staffing requirements will reach 2.3 million full-time employee equivalents by 2025, an increase of roughly 300,000 data centre professionals compared to 2019. Staffing needs are across the board and growing demand for data centre capacity continues to exacerbate the shortage.

“As in every other aspect of data centre operation, management must understand their local market, offer competitive compensation packages, remain nimble, remove unnecessary impediments to hiring and develop succession plans for each position. Our research shows that the most successful data centre staffing strategies lower barriers to employment (for example, by removing unnecessary education requirements) and provide on-the-job / sector-specific training.

“Also, the industry is better evangelising digital infrastructure careers with a focus on building a talent pipeline that is not just robust, but also diverse.

“We’ve seen in recent years that industry players are aware of the ongoing staffing challenges they face and many are actively looking for new ways to meet them head-on. In addition to adjusting their own recruitment, hiring and training programmes, many take part in broader industry initiatives such as International Data Center Day, a programme launched in 2019 to address the lack of qualified, diverse candidates within the digital infrastructure market. Each year, participants share resources to educate future data centre professionals at the elementary, high school and college levels, host events, promote internship and mentorship opportunities and much more. 

“Another example of industry efforts to address the sector’s growing workforce shortage is Data Center Career Pathfinder, a new online resource we’ve built in collaboration with Google, Meta and Microsoft. The tool offers the industry’s first comprehensive taxonomy of digital infrastructure job roles, helping to bring awareness to more than 230 different types of data centre jobs. Another valuable resource for industry employers and job seekers alike, Career Pathfinder is helping to expand the sector’s talent pipeline by educating people from all backgrounds and skill levels about the unseen world of data centres and the many career paths it has to offer.

“There’s no single, perfect solution that will make an organisation immune to the many difficulties this ongoing workforce shortage presents. Building the data centre workforce of tomorrow will require attention, effort, collaboration and leadership from across the entire industry.”

Sarah Parks, Director of Marketing and Communications, CNet Training: “In my role as Director of Marketing and Communications with CNet Training, it is quite evident that the skills gap is one of the most pressing, if not frustrating, topics in the industry.

“We are all aware that the skills shortage is not a new thing, as job vacancies across the digital infrastructure industry continue to be sky-high – fuelled more recently by the pandemic with even more demand for mission critical services.

“With not enough people with the right skills and knowledge for the available jobs, the old and important adage of ‘actions speak louder than words’ needs to be emphasised. We all need to take action to tackle the shortage and what better way than to all do it together, in collaboration. We must forget about the business side of things and pull together to promote the entire industry and start initiatives that will strengthen the message to wider audiences. If people know about data centres, they may be interested in working in them too.  

“The University Technical College (UTC) Heathrow is a perfect example of collaboration to help future-proof the industry and is something that can be rolled out nationally and internationally, with the right contacts. Working alongside seven other partners (CBRE, Yondr, Ark Data Centres, LMG, Virtus Data Centres and AWS), CNet Training has helped to launch the very first UTC dedicated to the digital infrastructure industry. Through the ‘Digital Futures Programme’ – a curriculum jam-packed with everything data centres and much more – it will help to future-proof the industry by inspiring a new generation to learn about it, join it and enjoy a rewarding career.

“Aimed at 14–19-year-olds, UTC Heathrow aims to give students the best possible start to a career within the digital infrastructure industry.

“Students gain the essential knowledge and skills needed to thrive in technical careers within the data centre sector. At the end of the programme there will be around 150 new entrants to the industry, all with knowledge of data centres, which is an amazing start.

“The programme is just about to finish year one and has already commanded considerable attention within the industry and has won a prestigious industry award. And while that is a remarkable achievement and we, along with the other UTC partners, are delighted to see our efforts recognised, this is only the first step towards tackling the skills shortage. The path is still rather long, but with more UTCs and therefore more focus on the younger generation, as well as more synergy from within the industry far and wide, it will certainly start to make a difference.

“Allied to this is the often-natural aversion from many companies to professionally train and educate their employees. Rather than seek new people, educate the ones you have, this will certainly address the skills gap.”

Leon O’Neill – Membership Manager DCA & Founder of Digital ABODES: “We are in a difficult position to provide the solution to the widening skills gap. To be clear, that’s not through a lack of desire, intent or requirement on the part of the data centre industry. Many data centre staff will probably admit that their career is an accidental one. They will tell you their story of how they entered the industry and how it was not a target career for them. This has been a common conversation for years at any event you may have attended, which begs the question… Are we looking in the wrong place at the wrong time for the right candidate?

“Attracting talent to the industry is predominantly about timing and circumstances of a student. If we take the graduate audience as an example, by the time M&E graduates have completed their degree, they have almost always decided on the discipline they want to pursue before being given any exposure to the data centre industry as a career option.

“So, where else can we look for candidates?

“Data centre providers would be in a better position to solve the widening skills gap if they and candidates had access to an education programme specifically designed for the data centre industry. Targeted at youth and diversity at an early age through school/college.

“This could also target the unemployed, through organisations such as FedCAP that are fully government funded and have access to the unemployed, providing services to help people re-train and get back into work. This is an audience that perhaps does not have access to the opportunities available in the data centre industry due to circumstances and almost always do not know it’s a career path they could choose.

“The data centre industry needs to ask itself whether it could better help students/candidates understand what it does and whether it should target this new audience of students/candidates with a message that has wider appeal.

“After all, household names such as Facebook, TikTok, Instagram, Google and Amazon are data centre operators and can provide real opportunities to develop a career, gain multiple skillsets (both blue and white collar) and dramatically improve employees’ circumstance and standards of living.

“While there are training courses available aimed at the corporate market, data centre operators/providers could and absolutely should support an education programme to provide the fundamental skills to put this new audience of students/candidates in a position to develop a career in our industry.

“Of course, there needs to be an entity to sit at the centre of a programme of education and guide all the moving parts that would be required for this to happen. The Data Centre Alliance could fit that role.”

Bjorn Viedge, General Manager at ALEC Data Centre Solutions: “In PwC’s 2021 Global Consumer Insights Survey, 67% of Middle East consumers stated that they have become more digital – significantly more than the 51% global average. Buoyed by the accelerated pace of digitalisation prompted by the pandemic and the consequent evolution of customer demands, the Middle East data centre market is expected to enjoy a healthy CAGR of around 7% until 2026. This momentum is only set to grow as government backing for smart, connected cities and the imminent wide-scale rollout of 5G networks will drive an even greater need for computational power.

“Building these data centres, however, is no small feat. It takes meticulous planning and coordination between a host of skilled professionals – designers, technicians, physical infrastructure experts, networks and application engineers, facilities managers, project managers and many more. It is rare for all but the largest of enterprises to have such diverse and qualified teams of professionals which is why most organisations seek out alternatives.

“Cloud services are an obvious solution and in recent years, with the likes of hyperscalers like Microsoft, AWS, Oracle, Alibaba Cloud, SAP, and others establishing locally-based cloud data centres, it has also become one that’s feasible for a wider set of industries. With the design, deployment, day-to-day management and upgrade of data centre infrastructure being expertly managed by third-party providers, IT teams no longer have to invest in a number of data centre related certifications and trainings. Moreover, it enables them to effectively win back precious man-hours that would have otherwise been spent on these tasks.

“Of course, the cloud isn’t fit for all workloads which is why a recent IBM study has shown that the vast majority (85%) of UAE businesses are looking to implement the hybrid cloud model. This places the onus back on organisations to build private data centres for their mission critical workloads. Fortunately, a new trend in data centre deployment – that of prefabricated, or modular data centres – has emerged, offering businesses a greatly simplified way of achieving this. Whereas traditional data centres lack flexibility and extendibility, these new prefabricated counterparts are designed with scalability in mind. By incorporating all essential active and passive components, from servers to cooling and power equipment into standardised modules, these data centres free IT teams from the laborious design and deployment challenges while offering them the ability to scale as the compute requirements of their business grows.

“While there is no doubt that the market for traditional data centres will continue to stand firm, the advancements in cloud data centres and new solutions such as modular data centres will help curtail the effects of the data centre skills gap – allowing demands to be met without operations coming to a grinding halt because of the lack of qualified professionals.”

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