How Singapore faces a DC talent crunch

When it comes to business, Singapore has emerged as one of the premier destinations and is an economic powerhouse in the world. The nation also houses the only mature data centre (DC) market with many regional and global players in Southeast Asia, research by Cushman & Wakefield shows.

Predicted to grow at a compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) of 12 per cent from 2019-2024, Singapore can continue to leverage the twin strengths of its mature local market and the emerging regional markets to navigate the next wave of DC development.

However, there is a catch.

Just like many other DC operators in the world, companies in Singapore have been having a hard time hiring high-demand roles such as technicians and analysts of power systems, control specialists of facilities, robotics technologists, amongst other factors.

Singapore’s information communications technology (ICT) sector currently employs about 200,000 people and will require another 60,000 in the next three years, according to Vivian Balakrishnan, the Minister in charge of the Smart Nation Initiative.

Yet, the education system is only producing 2,800 ICT graduates annually, which is 8,400 graduates over three years, leaving a 51,600 shortage. Edward van Leent, Chairman and CEO of UK-based energy consultancy EPI Group, at W.Media’s Digital Week in South East Asia 2021 notes the challenges of hiring suitable talents. “There is a lot of churn in this segment as the work is demanding and people have to work on holidays. People tend to leave jobs after a few years and move into other industries.”

If Singapore wants to improve its profile as the preferred DC host, it has to build up its manpower pool to meet the industry needs.

Skill requirements

The industry is seeing a mix of talent shortage as well as high attrition, which does not augur well. “What I am seeing practically is that you can get people, but to get the right skill sets, it is a problem,” opines van Leent. A specialised mix of skills is required for success in the DC industry.

First, infrastructure skills, such as first-hand mechanical or electrical equipment expertise are required.

It is also extremely important to have basic technology skills, such as programming and skill set with specific technology platforms and tools.

In addition, DC industry needs specialists with problem-solving abilities and the determination to practice them, the ability to think critically, a mission-driven emphasis on business objectives, and excellent customer support and teamwork ability.

It is a diverse applicant profile that has made it tougher than ever to fill today’s DC positions.

What is causing the staffing shortage?

There are several causes of staffing shortages, ranging from attitudes and awareness to policies and new developments.

Firstly, there is a lack of awareness of DC as a possible career track for prospective engineers and knowledge of what to expedite the identification of system problems. Adding to that, there are insufficient DC-focused courses at institutes of higher learning.

As many locals shy away from jobs in DC, there is a growing need for foreigners to fill up the positions, especially the entry-level jobs.

However, the Singapore government has taken steps to promote local hiring, one of which includes the recent increase in the minimum salary requirement for foreign workers. Thus, it is hard for foreigners with entry-level experience to get an Employment Pass.

With the growing sophistication of data centres, the industry’s focus has shifted from facilitation and operation to cloud ecosystem. This has increased the need for employers with the necessary specialised knowledge in ICT.

What exacerbates the demand for DC talents is a recent rise in uptake of hybrid cloud by Singapore businesses, outpacing the global average, Nutanix’s research showed.

The same study reported a slightly higher percentage of respondents in Singapore who said that their IT department lacked skills for managing hybrid cloud environments (42%) than the global average (37%).

The Fix

The quick solution for the lack of awareness may be hard to come by in the short term. However, with the world’s data skyrocketing (growing at an average of 63% per month), it will only be a matter of time before DC careers begin to take the centre stage of public attention.

More collaborations and information sharing between firms and schools would be helpful. An example of such collaborations is the Work-Study Diploma in Data Centre Infrastructure & Operation, an Institute of Technical Education (ITE) course that combines learning with practical experience. It would be more beneficial if educational policies systematise this exchange and expand it to other higher education institutions.

In fact, many of the skills can be learned on the job. Most jobs do not require a high level of formal education, even in positions where the employer may have initially required it. In other words, relevant experience, an internship/traineeship, or on-the-job training can often more than compensate for the lack of a formal qualification in most DC job roles.

Thus, professional training of the existing employers is crucial to ensure that the staff keeps up with the changing requirements. Smaller operators may not have the capacity to train their engineers like their larger counterparts. Often, they pay a premium to hire experienced DC operators. However, as the industry gradually evolves, what remains will be the larger players, who can afford to train their employers professionally.

Succession training is also critical to maintaining an adequate workforce at all levels of experience and forces the staffing discussion. It enables organisations to transition smoothly in the wake of retirements or other changes in leadership and helps them focus on the relatively new staffing challenge.

Even then, high staff turnover rates in the DC industry may defeat the benefits of training.

There are always fewer elements of uncertainty when we rely more on machines. Automation can reduce the stress on manpower. For example, Datacenter information/infrastructure Management (DCIM) software can expedite the identification of system problems.

According to Uptime institute’s research, 34% of DC operators believe that artificial intelligence will reduce their staffing levels in the next five years, and 43% think that it will take even longer.

Uncertainties remain

Other solutions for the staffing challenges continue to dog the sector. Hiring overseas talents to address local shortage is an increasingly acceptable possibility, especially given the ongoing pandemic.

While remote management is a prominent shift in the DC industry, many other complexities related to remote hiring such as legal and tax issues will come hand-in-hand, points out van Leent.

It is also hard to predict how much additional manpower is required for new technology, such as Edge computing.

This is due to the fact that Edge computing will rely heavily on prefabricated DC designs and will make considerable use of remote monitoring/operations, the staff requirement will likely be both lower than and different from those for centralised DC, making it hard to predict in the near future, according to Uptime Institute.

Perhaps, all this could push up the need for automation in the sector.