There are few things more frustrating than an imperfect faucet. Too tight a faucet and an army is required to get even a trickle of water, too loose a faucet and the slightest nudge releases a crashing, biblical flood into the basin below.
The issue of talent shortage in the data center industry today is that of the tight faucet. The labour needed in the industry is immense; a survey by Uptime Institute in 2021 indicated that half the global number of engineers in the industry would retire by 2025, yet the number of staff needed to feed the growing sector will rise from two million to nearly 2.3 million by the same year.
A 2019 demographic report on data technicians in the U.S. found that the average age of data center technicians was 43 years old, with only nine per cent of technicians aged from 20 to 30. Whilst this statistic has undoubtedly changed post-Covid, the unavoidable fact remains; the current supply of fresh talent to the data center industry is simply insufficient.
Bill Bernbach Babbling on Branding
This brings up the question- why?
The large-umbrella answer would come down to the issue of branding, or rather the lack thereof. Certain occupations will simply never run out of fashion; doctors, lawyers, police officers- the list continues. The mental image of the professional white-collared worker in a crisp suit is desired by many, and the respect for the industrious blue-collar worker is synonymous among any working population. From a cultural standpoint, artists and writers are great societal contributors, and as such, have a general- albeit at times begrudging, admiration from the public.
Reputation-wise, the data center industry is in a strange spot. The business that is the ‘new oil’ has been increasingly recognised by the general public through mainstream media coverage- largely via association with the world’s biggest companies such as Amazon and Google or as environmental news. Yet if you were to stop and ask a passerby on the street not what a data center is- in which case many people would be able to make a fairly accurate guess through knowing basic vocabulary, but why is a data center important, most folks would be stumped- or at best give vague answers whilst squirming in their places.
“Word of mouth is the best medium of all.”
The quote by New York advertising legend William Bernbach has proved immortal, staying as continually relevant as it was nearly 60 years ago. Word of mouth has been the most powerful tool in spreading ideas and messages since the dawn of time; no medium is as influential and seductive as the mouth of men. Stories told by people we admire, associate with or most importantly, trust, have the enormous potential of planting ideas in our subconscious; people simply trust personal recommendations above all other sources of information.
Industries that have gained popularity within society have become desirable not so much because of the impact they have or how essential they are, but rather because friends, family and society see them as status symbols and subsequently spread the word. Data center professions have not attained that image; even in the realm of tech careers, web and software developer or research roles are more attractive, with tech figureheads further romanticising this perception.
Individuals such as Steve Jobs and Bill Gates have paved the way for moguls like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, today’s rock stars of the tech world. The behind-the-scenes nature of the data center industry makes it difficult for leaders in the field to reach the same cult-status level of fame, spelling a lack of inspiration amongst fresh graduates to pursue a career in the area.
65/35, not 90/10
Another significant aspect to consider in addressing the question of the lack of talent in the industry comes in the form of focusing on the right skillset. There is a sense of mystery to the skills required in the data center world. The industry’s evolving nature hungrily demands an individual’s skill set to grow in range and depth- hence the need for a younger talent pool, but data center operators have ironically worked against this through mainly looking at the fulfilment of technical skills during the hiring process, when soft skills such as critical thinking and problem solving are arguably more important in the long run.
Red, Blue and Green Herrings
In today’s age, another inviting factor for graduates and younger professionals is diversity. Having a mix of men and women at any workplace today is essential in helping companies move forward, both from an ethical standpoint and in terms of organisational growth. The data center’s public reputation as a niche industry presents a worrying lack of understanding of career opportunities; the novelty of the sector has become a red herring for both employers and employees, and clearing the fog on what the industry is will undoubtedly lead to a wider, more diverse talent pool looking at data center professions as a career option.
Remedying The Faucet
So, what is the next step?
Efforts have to be made to promote and demystify the industry, to emphasise the importance of the sector. The perception of the industry as being ‘closed’ has to be thrown open, and fresh graduates have to be brought up to speed as to why the data center sector is essentially the lifeblood of the modern tech era. The entire branding of the business has to be shifted- this can only be done through active promotion, normalisation and reputation. Only then, will the talent faucet be loosened enough to fill up the emptying basin of professionals in the data center industry.