The data center industry has a well-documented labor shortage. While not the only sector to face such an issue, digital infrastructure is one of the few where demand is essentially guaranteed to grow – and indeed has grown every year since its conception.

Demand for data center capacity and services is growing at a faster rate than workforce supply. Those that joined the sector during its initial boom in the 90s & early 2000s are now approaching retirement, with the industry so far doing a terrible job of replacing the old guard.

As far back as 2019, 45 percent of Uptime Institute survey respondents stated that they had been in the industry for 20+ years, with only eight percent responding that their data center career spanned five years or less.

When you then take into account that the almost unwavering preference for mission critical experience means people new to the industry could be just as old as their tenured colleagues, you don’t need a degree in statistics to say that the figures are troubling.

We are in a growing industry that has both a labor shortage and an ageing workforce that needs more young workers. The only questions are, “why are we not attracting young talent?” and “How do we?”

Why are we not attracting talent?

Where our sector fails most against other anchor sectors like healthcare, as well as some of our better looking cousins, e.g Tech, is awareness. Kids have and always will grow up wanting to be doctors.

While of course modern healthcare infrastructure relies heavily on data centers, kids are never going to swap scrubs for their favorite colo-branded polo shirt on Halloween because of it.

That being said, there probably are kids running around today saying they want to be the next Mark Zuckerburg or Jeff Bezos, and that provides us with an opportunity.

The largest data center organizations, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Meta etc. are well-known, used and even celebrated by the younger generation – we just need to harness that interest and make them aware of the fact that they can have careers at these ‘sexy’ companies through data centers.

How do we get young people excited about data centers?

Let’s talk about TikTok, the social media platform of choice for the younger generation (according to the platform’s own data, 80 percent of users are aged 16-34.)

Last week we ran a poll on our LinkedIn page with a simple question, ‘Do you believe TikTok is an effective platform for attracting young talent into the data center industry?’ Most that answered (39 percent) said no. I was very surprised by this, I would actually go as far to say that the answer is a definitive yes.

Whatever concerns one has about TikTok and its use, of which there are admittedly many, its value as a vehicle to get you in front of the eyes of the younger generation can’t be understated.

Data by Measure Protocol has found that Gen Z spends the most time on TikTok compared to any other app. Eighty-three percent of teens use the app and almost 40 percent actually use TikTok as their primary search engine, leading to the rise of the phrase ‘TikTok it’ over the traditional ‘Google it.’

People might make the argument that the niche of the data center industry means it won’t translate to other usage and consumer trends we see with platforms like TikTok. When actually, the evidence says otherwise.

TikTok user @datacentertk is that evidence. Created 11 months ago by Erik Smid, On-support Engineer at Dutch colocation provider Serverius, the account documents many of Erik’s daily tasks, including testing generators, installing RAM and swapping out dirty AC filters. Things like that wouldn’t garner much interest on TikTok would they? Wrong. Erik has nearly 42k followers and his videos have amassed over 500k likes and 9.5 million views.

What’s so great about Erik’s account is that it’s created a face for data center operations, and kudos to Serverius as well for supporting this. In a sector as secretive as ours, one where the ‘don’t look at my stuff’ mantra has played a big role in the lack of awareness that is partly driving the labor shortage in the first place, it’s things like this that are showing young people what data centers are, and building on this by showing them how they work.

You only have to look through the comments on Erik’s videos to see the real-time interaction taking place – from jokes about how the Minecraft and Call of Duty servers would still crash, to people actually asking what they need to do to get a job in a data center, the benefits of using visual demonstrations through platforms like TikTok are plain to see.

A famous scientist is repeatedly claimed to have said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results. There’s loads of different ways to address the labor shortage – actively engaging blue collar talent pools, higher education pathways and increased investment in apprenticeship and mentoring schemes to name a few – but maybe it's time we tried something new. We need to explore more up-to-date avenues to increase awareness.

We can no longer rely on people falling into data centers by accident, and we’re certainly not going to get new talent to enter an industry they don’t know exists.