The data center industry is facing an existential crisis. Massive cloud adoption, cloud computing, online services, and an explosion in data consumption in general is fueling 11 percent year-on-year industry growth. To keep up with that growth, we need trained data center professionals.
But data center professionals are in low supply, as a greater number of professionals are retiring from the industry than are joining it. For years, data center operators have relied on recruiting highly talented nuclear engineers and technicians from the military, specialists from mechanical and electrical trades — especially those with engineering backgrounds — and industry veterans from other companies.
Yet, industry wide, these approaches are proving to be mere band-aids for a larger problem. They don’t address our general lack of a systematic way to recruit and train data center professionals, and now there’s simply not enough talent to go around. And like most skill-heavy businesses, the data center industry is in desperate need of an infusion of new and diverse talent — the likes of which can only really be acquired by creating and promoting a new career path in our colleges and trade schools.
Breaking the laws of supply and demand
The data center industry as a whole is facing a unique, but growing challenge. More than 60 percent of data centers already have significant difficulty retaining or recruiting staff, and new data centers are coming online and existing ones are growing at a faster rate than we can find people to work in them.
The reasons for this growing chasm aren’t a mystery. Primarily, most people don’t really know what a data center is or does. They see enormous, concrete square buildings off the side of the highway or on a large parcel of land that seem more like eyesores and wastes of good land rather than engines of commerce and the heart of business in the Digital Age. They appreciate the tax revenues data centers pump into their communities, but strongly dislike the boring aesthetics of the buildings and their undeniable environmental impacts.
Few industry outsiders know what activities occur in these facilities or the types of jobs available to support them. High school students and recent graduates mapping out their potential career paths decide they want to go into law, medicine, or business. Others are interested in and happier pursuing skilled labor opportunities in design and construction or myriad other potential career options.
None choose data centers, and it’s largely our own fault.
Collectively, data centers have historically been tightlipped about how they work and who they work with. We try to protect what we see as our “secret sauce” at the expense of being transparent enough that people outside our business might someday decide to join us, help us grow, and catalyze the evolution of our industry.
Higher education: the key to addressing the growing talent gap
For virtually every other career opportunity one can think of, there’s a requisite education curriculum to go with it. Even for mid-career changes, there are educational opportunities that allow people working in one industry to gain the skills, knowledge, and credentials they need to find a new role in a new industry.
That’s just not the case for data centers, despite the fact that entry-level data center technician roles feature higher-than-average salaries, up to or greater than $80,000 per year in some markets. Those markets — regions like Northern Virginia, Chicago, Denver, Silicon Valley, and others — are hotbeds of data center development and growth. Northern Virginia alone has tens of thousands of data center facilities in its regional footprint, with more on the way.
These locations are also heavily populated by higher-education institutions, public and private, that offer up a solution to the industry’s growing talent shortage so obvious, it’s almost impossible to explain how or why we haven’t done anything about it yet.
The logical conclusion to collectively solving our talent shortage is to create a purpose-built education curriculum offered in a variety of higher-education environments that widens the reach of our recruiting efforts and, in the long-term, will create a sustainable pipeline of qualified talent to support our industry’s continued growth.
We must recognize that not everyone is cut out for military service to gain the hands-on engineering experience we often seek in data center technician candidates. And many students – especially those from lower income households or with other family obligations — might not have the means, the time, or the ability to enroll in a costly four-year degree program to put them in a position to even consider working in a data center.
Building data center education into community college and trade school curricula is an ideal way to reach a wider audience of students that, ultimately, serves to not only fill the increasing number of job openings in our facilities, but also to support our industry’s ongoing efforts for greater diversity and inclusion. It enables greater access to essential job training that’s valuable and beneficial to everyone — students, their families, our businesses, and the local communities we serve.
It may not be as quick as the band-aid options, but data center-focused education is the most efficient, cost-effective, and sustainable path for solving our growing talent shortage thoroughly and permanently.
Selling the data center curriculum is still an uphill battle
Despite its obvious benefits, selling the idea of a data center curriculum in higher education isn’t a slam dunk.
Colleges (and especially universities) don’t want to invest their limited resources and space into a course that no one will know about or few will attend. There’s also a shortage of qualified teachers because, frankly, working in the data center is far more lucrative than teaching others about working in them.
Fortunately, building the curriculum itself isn’t as onerous or expensive as building a full degree program and there’s a ton of high-value, deep industry expertise from eager industry veterans that programs can tap into if they know where to look and how to ask. Schools can work with government agencies, local businesses, and nonprofits to procure the space and equipment required for creating a hands-on lab. And the industry itself could fund scholarships, grants, or other awards to help bring the total cost of this education track to a mere fraction of the cost of a full degree.
The data center industry as a whole is at a crossroads. There’s more demand for our services, more facilities coming online at a faster rate than ever, and fewer qualified people to work in them. It’s long past time that we introduce data center curriculum into post-secondary education programs to offer students a whole new career path they never knew existed and create a wide and deep curated pool of talent that will prevent us from exhausting all of our hiring options before it’s too late.