STEMming the tide of data centre skills shortages

by | Jul 31, 2018 | Articles, News

What do you want to be when you’re older? It’s a question many of us were asked during our early years at school. An astronaut, footballer, rockstar were and continue to be career choices for the young generations, seeking out fame and fortune. More recently, famous vloggers and social media sensations have no doubt made the sacred list. Yet how about data centres? How many of the professionals working in data centres today set out on that career path from the start?

It’s an interesting question and one that Peter Hannaford, founder of specialist recruitment company Datacenter People often asks the audience when speaking at conferences. He believes the general unawareness of the industry and its significance doesn’t help the challenge.

“Data centres are not a topic that are taught in schools and it’s not often something that is a career choice,” he says. “Around 90 percent of the population haven’t got a clue where data is stored. They know about the cloud but they don’t have an idea that the data resides in a building somewhere.”

His company recently had to recruit a team of 20 people for a data centre in the Netherlands. Over half the candidates came from the oil and gas sectors.

“There are transferable skills from other industries,” he adds. “Electrical and mechanical engineers, nuclear engineers and submariners, these make for great data centre technicians because they really understand what mission critical is.”

Wake up call

So how big is the problem? According to recent data from STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) Learning, skills shortages cost related businesses £1.5 billion per year. To put that number into perspective, there is currently an estimated shortfall of 173,000 skilled workers annually across STEM industries, including data centre and IT engineering.

Furthermore, data from STEM Learning predicts that new roles could double over the next 10 years.

The organisation spoke to HR directors at 400 STEM businesses in the UK. Overall, feedback revealed that recruitment is taking longer than expected, they are having to spend more on temporary staff, hiring at a lower level and training staff up, or even inflating salaries to attract talent.

“These figures act as a wake up call, but the good news is that by acting now businesses can make a difference and help future-proof the UK economy,” says Yvonne Baker, chief executive of STEM Learning.

Shaking the candidate tree

Such data should be taken seriously but what about data centre specific stats, with even more detail beyond STEM? This is also part of the challenge, according to Dr Theresa Simpkin, higher and further education principal at CNet Training, which is focused on the data centre sector globally.

Data centre engineering has been a victim of its own success. The business has grown at such a phenomenal rate but as a hybrid sector, directly between IT, engineering and facilities management.

“Each one of those sectors, in themselves, have traditionally had skills and labour shortages for some time,” says Simpkin. “When you create a new sector from those core sectors, you are importing those issues. With such a rapid rate of expansion, we just haven’t had the strategic capacity to keep up with the labour and skills and broader capability demand.”

She adds: “Data centre engineering is still a very young sector, it has experienced the same sort of growth and journey to maturity that has taken more traditional industries centuries. We are also standing in line behind a raft of other traditional, well known industries. They have been out there shaking the candidate tree for decades and they have a very well-crafted employer brand and offering.”

Uncle Sam

With the skills shortages well known it raises the question of what is the answer, if there is just one? An Uncle Sam “I want you” US military style recruitment poster put to one side, Baker believes that when it comes to cultivating STEM skills “the responsibility cannot lay solely at the feet of schools or government alone”.

STEM Learning works with businesses, schools and government on long-term, sustainable programmes and said it impacts 20,000 schools and more than two million students per year.

Meanwhile Simpkin says it’s important to get the interest of children when they are young. “The thing is you need get to children really early and particularly girls. So we need to get in at the early stage. We’re not talking 15 and 16, we’ve missed the boat by then.”

At the top level, the government has announced £500 million of new funding for employer-designed Technical Education and £170 million investment to establish Institutes of Technology in every English region to deliver higher level STEM skills.

STEM schools

Some schools are taking matters into their own hands. Evendons Primary School opened as the first STEM school in Wokingham in 2014. It started out with a vision to be strong in the four core STEM subjects, science, technology, engineering and maths.

The idea is get children interested and engaged in how things are built and function, with engagement with industry and businesses beyond the school. For example, an engineer from the oil & gas industry recently gave a talk, to give the pupils an awareness of such industries and what goes into them.

“We try to introduce basic engineering principles into lessons every day,” says headteacher Patrick Pritchett. “We also try to bring the grounds into the curriculum, to give the children a first-hand experience of the natural world.” One of the initiatives organised by the school is a yearly STEM Fair, sponsored by Future-tech. The idea is to give children the freedom to explore the school’s projects, while rubbing shoulders with children from other schools, college and university students and local professionals. Essentially networking and encouraging children to broaden their outlook from an early age.

“We are moving into an AI age, where many jobs previously done by people will be done by machines,” said James Wilman, CEO of Future-tech”. Although AI is good at certain types of task, being truly creative and solving problems with new and innovative solutions is innately human.”

He continued: “As humanity’s challenges become more and more complex, responsibility is going to fall on the engineers, scientists and mathematicians of the future to solve them. Therefore, we need the children and parents of today to understand the value of these fields of study. We need to make sure younger generations are equipped with the right education and STEM skills. This will provide them with opportunities in the integrated AI world to come and ensure critical infrastructure industries have creative and talented people to drive their continuous improvement and evolution.”

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