Does a data centre industry skills shortage need to become a crisis?

Does a data centre industry skills shortage need to become a crisis?

Many issues, opportunities and problems we face, whether at work, home or as part of a wider community, fall into the ‘glass half empty/glass half-full’ category.

Written by Phil Alsop, Editor, DCS Europe Published Tuesday, 30 July 2019 12:52

Many issues, opportunities and problems we face, whether at work, home or as part of a wider community, fall into the ‘glass half empty/glass half-full’ category. That is to say, whether it’s Brexit, global warming, or just the price of a pint, one can be optimistic or pessimistic as to the status quo. Brexit might lead to the UK falling off an economic cliff; or it might lead to the country re-gaining some of its former glory as an ‘independent’ country and never looking back. Climate change is real, but are you in the ‘we’re all doomed’ camp, or the one which believes that technology and people will solve the challenges that lie ahead? As for the price of a pint. Depending on where you are, who you are with and what you pay, it could be seen as a bargain or rather expensive!

Turning our attention to the data centre industry, it’s not impossible to be either upbeat or downbeat about the state of the industry when it comes to the critical issue of skills. More specifically, a data centre skills shortage. An article from the DCA Journal, which appeared in the March issue of Digitalisation World, sums up the potential problem rather neatly. In it, the author, Elliot Shaw, MD, Eight6seven Recruitment, does some simple maths:

“Let’s agree on 650 DCs in the UK right now, each one with a three man, four shift policy - that makes a total of 7,800 DC experienced and qualified PPM Engineers including both ICT and M&E… in the next three years around 3,510 current DC engineers will leave the industry, some for good and some just for a year or two. In addition to this, the industry will grow between 8-10% in the same timeframe - we are looking at a deficit of around 3,825 engineers or well over half!” (1)

Meanwhile, among the main findings of the Uptime Institute’s recently published 9th Annual Global Data Centre Survey is the following:

“The sector is facing a staffing crisis, with 61% of all respondents saying they have significant difficulty recruiting or retaining staff. And diversity issues are becoming more impactful to the business as skilled resources become harder to recruit. A full 25% of managers surveyed had no women among their design, build or operations staff, and only 5% of respondents said women represented 50% or more of staff.” (2)

The whys and wherefores as to how the data centre industry has arrived at this potentially catastrophic situation can be debated over a (good-value) pint or two (alongside Brexit and global warming). However, we are where we are and it’s now time for those who own, operate, or even simply use data centre facilities to decide as to whether the glass is half empty or half full when it comes to what impact the very real skills shortage is likely to have in the near future.

Those in the glass half full corner will point to the ever-increasing levels of automation which are encroaching on the data centre industry, amongst many others. Some combination of artificial intelligence, machine learning and robots could well lead to lights out, unmanned data centres becoming the norm at some unspecified time in the next decade or so. And while there are scaremongers who would caution against too much reliance on automation that could end up biting the hand that feeds it, the idea of robots somehow taking over the planet are, thankfully, the stuff of the movies rather than real-life.

Those in the glass half empty corner will already be imagining some kind of data centre and related IT meltdown, where not only are the UK’s power supplies going to run out before too long, but even when there is enough power to keep the data centre industry operating, there won’t be enough people to man the facilities. Data centre Armageddon is upon us!

The reality lies somewhere between the two. Yes, automation will ensure that running a data centre may well require less humans in the future, but this is not going to happen overnight. And, yes, there are going to be significant skills shortages, but, thanks in part to automation and thanks in part to training programmes being introduced, these shortages may not be that catastrophic.

Of course, until data centre automation does go mainstream, and before many new, skilled workers do join the industry (and even when these events have occurred), there is another approach available that offers data centre peace of mind. Dedicated data centre providers, while not immune from the issues discussed above, are far less likely to suffer from significant skills shortages, and are far more likely to be further along the road to automation, than the vast majority of businesses.

The economies of scale and dedicated focus of such providers means that they can attract and maintain the best, most skilled staff, and that they can make significant investment in an automated future in a way that only the very largest enterprise companies can match. SMBs and even many large businesses, with limited budgets, are far better off concentrating on their mainstream activities, leaving the running of the data centre to the experts. After all, virtually all businesses are happy to trust their utility suppliers for their energy, water and telecoms requirements. Why should the data centre be any different?

Entrusting your IT project to a data centre provider will almost certainly take one or more weights off your mind. No longer do you have to worry if you can a) find a replacement for the soon to retire in-house IT manager, or (b) even if you do find a replacement, whether or not you can afford their salary. Neither do you have to stay awake at nights trying to understand in what way(s) your IT infrastructure can benefit from AI, IoT, ML/DL or even AR and VR.  

Working with a dedicated data centre provider is (remember this one?) almost certainly the BATNEEC (best available technique not entailing excessive costs)!