Why diversity, inclusion, and education can unlock the data centre skills shortage

Marc Garner, VP, Secure Power Division, Schneider Electric UK & Ireland The data centre sector skills shortage has been documented by industry publications and research firms for almost a decade. In fact, a report published by Gartner in 2016 found 80% of firms expected to find their growth held back due to a lack of new data centre skills, with the McKinsey Global Institute predicting a global shortage of 1.5 million qualified data centre managers as early as 2015.

Data centres have become the beating heart of the global digital economy, and while the industry’s growth has fast accelerated, the question remains, have we done enough to encourage new professionals into the sector? The short answer, some may argue, is no.

Research detailed within the Uptime Institute Annual Data Center Survey 2021 estimates that staff requirements will grow globally from about 2.0 million full-time equivalents in 2019 to nearly 2.3 million in 2025. Further, 32% of respondents reported having difficulty retaining staff, with 20% being hired by competitors. However, what is more concerning is that 47% of data centre businesses seem to be having difficulty just finding qualified candidates for open jobs. So, while global demands for digital transformation and mission-critical infrastructure proliferates, the skills gap affecting the sector grows ever wider. Attracting and retaining talent within the industry is now reaching a critical mass, so what can our industry do to address this?

Address the lack of diversity

One of the first areas our industry must address is around diversity and inclusion (D&I), especially in a sector dominated by male professionals. The same report from Uptime found that from a diversity perspective, intent continued to outstrip action, with just 5% of operators reporting that ‘about half’ of their data centre staff were women.

Moreover, since Uptime began tracking the sector’s diversity in 2018, the industry’s gender demographics have not changed materially, and more than three-quarters of those surveyed report that their workforce is made up of around 10% women, or less. These figures present a stark look for our industry, especially one that is fuelled by investments, mergers and acquisitions (M&A), and growth.

As an industry, we must drive the development of a broader talent pool, and engage, empower, and encourage more female candidates to join and futureproof the sector. This, however, is one area where Schneider Electric is leading by example, and through our commitments to sustainability and diversity, we are creating an inclusive environment for the next generation of female professionals. Our goal is to ensure that women represent 50% of all new hires, 40% of all frontline managers, and 30% of senior leadership roles in our organisation by 2025.

Through this vision we believe we can acquire different skills and perspectives, attract new talent, and provide a diverse range of candidates to help drive sustainable change within the data centre and energy management industries.

Become greater advocates for STEM

Another key means to address the shortage is to encourage young professionals to consider careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Here driving awareness among the next generation from a young age is critical, primarily so that they understand the importance of the sector and consider it as a valuable career path.

STEM, however, is not just limited to maths and engineering, and key examples of business roles that can draw on its skills include product development and marketing; solutions design and architects; strategic planning and project management; mechanical and electrical engineering (M&E); and business development and Entrepreneurship. Furthermore, promoting STEM education from an early age has been found to create a diverse pool of talent across all levels, which is likely to help attract more professionals into the industry and foster the growth of its future leaders.

Another route to bridging the skills gap is via graduate programmes, and by collaborating more closely with universities we can empower the next generation of data centre professionals to pursue purpose-driven careers in our sector. Today the industry underpins some of the world’s most important and influential businesses, from global social media platforms and Internet Giants to Financial Services, Life Science and Pharmaceutical research organisations. Each one of these businesses has established a strong, digital foundation within the industry and is dependent on its mission-critical infrastructure, presenting a rewarding career for any new industry advocate.

At Schneider Electric, we target a 50% gender split amongst our graduate and early-career recruitment intake, and in 2020, 65% of our graduate hires were female. By addressing STEM from an early age and removing stereotypes around engineering, we can gain new perspectives and encourage a new generation of talent to join the sector.

Reassess the skills required to enter the sector and retain the workforce

Today there are many expert individuals who possess skills that can be cross trained into the industry. At Schneider Electric, we believe we must reassess the criterion for entering the sector and consider candidates who have built core competencies which can translate into quick learning. By widening the recruitment net through cross-skilling and looking outside of the sector, we can identify candidates who have comparable expertise and bridge the skills gap.

Staff retention is reported by Uptime to be another key challenge, and one that should be a key focus for our industry. Mentorship and development from within remain essential, and we believe it is essential to recognise both the value and the potential in our people. During the pandemic, for example, our sector’s professionals were named key workers, and data centres became instrumental to every facet of the digital economy. With more skilled professionals leaving our sector to join other industries, there has never been a more important time for us to focus on mentorship and to create opportunities for development, which will be vital to retain staff within the sector.

As an industry we can go one step further, and adopt key learnings from other sectors, especially those around remote and hybrid working. By considering new candidate motivations, which could include flexible hours for professionals with young families, reducing commute hours, or advocating hybrid working, we can do much to retain talent and begin to bridge the talent gap for generations to come.

Educate from within

Finally access to ongoing education, including CPD-accredited professional development programmes and diverse training paths is pivotal. As such, Schneider Electric has created a professional education platform, named the ‘Schneider Electric University’, offering free access to vendor-agnostic education to help train and upskill the next generation of data centre professionals.

Formerly known as the APC™ ‘Data Center University’, the platform has evolved to offer over 200 data centre, energy efficiency, and sustainability courses, and to-date has delivered over 1,000,000 courses to more than 650,000 users globally. Furthermore, by being specifically designed as a vendor-neutral, CPD-accredited education platform, it is recognised by numerous global industry associates including Engineers Ireland, the Electrical Contractors Association (ECA), and BICSI. Crucially, through Schneider Electric University we are helping train, retain and upskill the next generation of data centre professionals, and are playing a key role in addressing the industry skills challenge on a global scale.

As we look forward there are many things that our industry can do to futureproof the sector. Attracting, retraining, and retaining talent is essential, but only by building a diverse, inclusive, and resilient workforce can we empower our industry to drive change, and build the sustainable data centres of the future.

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