How do we solve the industry’s people and skills shortage?

How do we solve the industry’s people and skills shortage?

What about the short and longer term?

Written by Phil Alsop, Editor, DCS Europe Published Wednesday, 05 February 2020 09:30

Intelligent automation might be able to replace humans in many activities, but the likelihood is that we will still need a substantial number of skilled individuals to work alongside such technology when it comes to designing, installing, operating and maintaining data centre and IT infrastructure for the foreseeable future. So, at a time when there is a worrying shortage of such personnel, how can we attract more people to the industry – both in the short and longer term? 

Thinking back to Christmas party season not so long ago, I was readying myself for those awkward, ‘So what do you do?’ type of questions. I try not to answer ‘I’m a journalist’, as, to most people at least, it seems that this profession is not far removed from the list of crimes that will see you locked away for five or six years. So, I normally answer ‘I’m an editor’ (which does happen to be true as well). Inevitably, this leads on to the explanation that I edit magazines that you won’t find in the newsagent, but which come under the category of ‘business to business’ publications. And then I tell people that the titles I edit cover the water sector and the data centre and IT industry. Water is interesting because we all use it and need to get rid of wastewater, and there are floods and droughts and politics involved; and data centres are equally important, I explain, because without them, almost any aspect of modern life you care to think about wouldn’t work properly.

There’s a data centre somewhere in the background whenever you make a purchase – and when, somewhere along the trail between the sales terminal in the shop and the data centre, technology fails, transactions come to halt. And then there are the well-publicised banking catastrophes, where customers are unable to access their money because a data centre, or part of its contents, has failed spectacularly – often during a data migration project. And as to the frustration of trying to download website pages, whether via a mobile phone, tablet or PC, well networks, storage and/or data centre performance and location all have a role to play. And which organisation can afford to operate in the 21st century without some kind of a database, which needs to live and/or be backed up in some kind of a data centre?

So, how do we solve the skills shortage in the data centre industry specifically, as well as in the wider IT world?

Well, the best investment would have to be a TV advertising campaign along the lines of those run by the Armed Forces. You know the ones where a soldier/sailor/marine/airman needs to make a tough, split-second decision in extreme weather conditions, where lives are at stake; and the advert chains back through the training that the decision-maker has received for just such a moment, and then comes back to the present and the decision is taken and everything works out just fine?

Imagine the equivalent for a data centre professional. It’s Christmas Eve in a busy department store, mums and dads present-buying for their youngsters, a massive queue at the tills, and the lights in the store flicker and the till lights grow dim – cut to a data centre professional sat in a Network Operations Centre (NOC even sounds sexy!) monitoring the screens, spotting the department store’s problem and pressing the magic button, or making the call to a colleague, who brings online more compute and storage capacity, and then we’re back to the shop and the lights come back to full brightness and nobody knew there had been a problem.

Or what about an advertisement explaining the vital importance of data centres and IT infrastructure to a Formula 1 teams or indeed, many sports teams and venues? Or one which tells a simple tale along the lines of: no data centres, no online gaming?

I think it’s the AA (or is it the RAC) which claims to be the UK’s fourth emergency service. What powerful strapline could the data centre industry promote?

And surely there are enough interested parties to bankroll such an initiative?

That’s my number one idea for creating interest in the data centre and IT sectors, and I genuinely believe it would work.

Alongside such an advertising campaign, school education has to be a major priority. A programme which mixes school visits, where industry professionals talk through a story similar to the one outlined in the advertising campaign, locking in to children’s interests – gaming, sport, mobile phones and ipads, television/multimedia for starters – with data centre visits would surely inspire?

Yes, I know that the idea of 30 plus children running around a data centre would appear to break every security rule out there, but it shouldn’t be impossible to have a main presentation and activities area where the children are educated and small groups are taken into the actual data centre to see what happens. I know that the water industry copes with such school visits, and imagine the machinery and tanks full of unmentionable liquids which need to be guarded against at a sewage treatment works!

Moving higher up the chain, a similar approach should work at the university level, where the vital importance of data centres to modern day life is emphasised and, therefore, the value of becoming a data centre/IT professional is made attractive to those studying for relevant degrees.

And the final piece of the jigsaw needs to deal with the here and now. Targeting tomorrow’s data centre professionals is all good and well, but the rewards will be somewhere down the line. For the present, re-training would appear to represent the best approach. Re-training broken down into two distinct sections:

  • Re-training new or recent undergraduates who have relevant degrees and skills. Talking to a couple of data centre companies at the recent DCD London event, both of them explained how they’d had some success with such an approach. Indeed, once made aware of the opportunities in the data centre sector, interest was relatively high amongst their targeted audience. Sadly, the industry’s profile is too low (but not for long if the advertising campaign happens!), so many suitable personnel just don’t consider it as an option.
  • Re-training the technology workforce who may well be vulnerable to the march of intelligent automation. There’s no doubt that plenty of folks who work in the technology sector are looking over their shoulders at what they see as the threat of automation. But, what if this threat was turned into an opportunity? After all, many of them will already understand how the industry works and the relationships between the various blocks in the technology chain. So, offered the chance to re-train but to stay within the industry, just in a different area, wouldn’t plenty of personnel welcome this option?

So, there you have it: advertising on TV, and, of course, via social media, organising a schools’ education programme, a university recruiting promotion and re-training initiatives. The common theme to all of these initiatives? Making data centres sound exciting, which they are!

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