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Nurturing data industry talent fit for a carbon-neutral world

Bridging the data centre skills gap is critical to our immediate and longer-term digital future - virtual, cloud-based, sustainable or otherwise

Data is now the driving force of the world’s modern economies, and as our demand for data increases, so does the number of data-associated opportunities. While it is creating the new technologies and innovation that will enable our transition to net zero by 2050, digital transformation is also creating new industries and jobs that require specific skills and ways of thinking.

The situation should represent a bonanza for individuals with data-related skills and data-related companies alike, but a lack of suitable candidates with the necessary expertise means that the industry is faced with a recruitment crisis.

Nowhere is this conundrum more keenly felt than in the data centre industry, a previously overlooked sector that was poorly understood, if at all, by industry outsiders until the Covid-19 pandemic focused the world’s attention on just how internet-reliant daily life has become.

As the International Energy Agency revealed in its recent tracking report, Data Centres and Data Transmission Networks1, global internet traffic skyrocketed by more than 40 per cent in 2020 as a result of the increase in video streaming, video conferencing, online gaming, and social networking that accompanied the Covid-19 crisis.

Given that most of the world’s Internet Protocol (IP) traffic goes through data centres, that makes these very physical entities critically important in our increasingly virtual world. Although they come in several varieties, data centres are essentially facilities that house the kit that makes the internet tick.

Unsurprisingly, there has been a huge increase in the demand for their services as the world’s digital transformation has continued apace. Global internet traffic more than doubled between 2017-20 and could double again by 2023 if current trends are sustained2. It’s estimated that this demand is currently serviced by around 7.2 million data centres worldwide, but that number is expected to increase and all of these facilities will require skilled engineers and experts to ensure they are energy efficient and sustainable.

“As a sector, we simply can't support ourselves. Two years ago, if you had a vacancy, you’d have a good handful of very comparable CVs and you’d be able to make reasoned choices, but we see a lot fewer applicants now because the talent isn’t available,” explains Steve Hayward, Senior Director of European Operations at data centre company CyrusOne. “It’s scary to think of where we’ll be in two or three years’ time because we’ve outgrown the talent pool and if we don’t get over it we’re going to have some real problems.”

Earlier this year, the Uptime Institute released their first global staffing report, which estimates the sector will employ just under 2.3 million people globally by 20253, a small number when you consider the increasing demand placed on the industry.

“When you look at the development of technology and improvements in sustainability, there are going to be roles within my teams in five years’ time that we don’t even know about now,” CyrusOne’s Hayward admits.

Many of these roles inevitably will lie in creating and sustaining ‘green’ data centres. In January 2021, European data centre operators and associations including CyrusOne, AWS, Google, and NTT, as well as smaller and national providers, signed up to an agreement to achieve climate neutrality by 2030. Now with over 90 signatories, the Climate Neutral Data Centre Pact sets targets for efficiency and the use of green energy, as well as creating a circular data centre economy. The initiative followed the announcement of the EU’s Green Deal at the end of 2019, which set targets for the whole continent to achieve climate neutrality.

Achieving this ambitious goal will depend, in part, on the development of a pipeline of available talent. For Ed Galvin, CEO of independent data centre market company DC Byte, however, the recruitment challenges facing the data centre sector are the product of a failure to raise its profile amongst potential employees or to attract new recruits at a junior level. A recent report commissioned by Data Centre Dynamics found that 83 per cent of companies in the sector were experiencing labour shortage issues4.

“Worryingly, most recruitment over the past 20 years has been through the existing workforce moving between companies,” Galvin says. “Now a significant proportion of the most experienced engineering teams in the UK are set to retire in the next few years. This will increase both the skills and expertise gaps.”

The UK is one of the largest data centre markets in the world, says Galvin, but if it wants to retain its position, “it needs to ensure that there is a sufficiently large and skilled workforce of network and mechanical and electrical engineers who can service the sector and support its growth.”

CyrusOne’s Hayward believes that the lack of ”good old-fashioned engineering skillsets that aren’t specific to the data industry,” and shortages of mechanics, electricians, electronics and engineers may stem from what he describes as a simple falling out of love with traditional skillsets. “If you go back 20 years or so, there was a lot of engineering talent being developed in the UK across lots of sectors, but as the world has digitised, other jobs have seemed more attractive and the traditional skills have been forgotten.”

In order to take a proactive effort to combat these challenges, in November 2021, University Technical College Heathrow (UTC Heathrow) and techUK announced that they had created the first Data Centre UTC in the UK, as part of the recently launched Digital Futures Program – a first for the industry. UTC Heathrow is redesigning their existing curriculum to allow students to gain the essential knowledge and skills needed to thrive in technical careers within the data centre sector and add it as a new career path option, with CyrusOne confirmed as a key partner to help to define the syllabus.

At the same time, the UK Department for Education printed a draft strategy on sustainability and climate change that outlined the wider role that young people will play in filling the green skills gap and education’s role in achieving Unesco’s ‘ESD for 2030’ (Education for Sustainable Development), which sets out the key role of education in the successful achievement of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

As Hayward admits, the Data Centre sector is in desperate need of a fresh injection of innovation, agility, and talent, particularly in the urgency to offset carbon emissions. “The next big idea will come from the new, younger generation. Likely, it will be a young, sharp mind who has a different way of looking at things - most notably a unique perspective on sustainability efforts.”

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View Footnotes

2 Ibid
3 The People Challenge: Global Data Center Staffing Forecast 2021-2025
4 The Impact of the Skills Gap on the European Data Center Industry, Data Centre Dynamics (2021)