Data-center staffing shortage to spike in coming years

With data-center recruitment issues projected to increase, researchers from Uptime Institute are concerned the bar is set too high for applicants.

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With the predicted growth in the data-center market comes a concurrent need for more staff. According to a report from the Uptime Institute, the number of staff needed to run the world's data centers will grow from around two million in 2019 to nearly 2.3 million by 2025.

This estimate covers more than 230 specialist job roles for different types and sizes of data centers, with varying criticality requirements, from design through operation, and across all global regions.

Already the industry is bedeviled by staffing shortages. Fifty percent of those surveyed by Uptime Institute said they were currently experiencing difficulties finding candidates for open positions, up from 38% in 2018.

One reason for the staffing shortage is that the bar to entry is set too high and excludes candidates who could otherwise do the job.

While employers tend to have high education requirements, in reality, many data-center jobs do not require a high level of formal education, even in positions where the employer may have initially required it.

"In other words, relevant experience, an internship/traineeship, or on-the-job training can often more than compensate for the lack of a formal qualification in most job roles," the report states. Very few job roles — most of which are in technical engineering — require a university or college degree; equivalent experience will suffice for most of the tasks required in other roles.

The study found that globally, the biggest employers are investing in more training and education, not just by developing internal programs but also by working with universities and colleges and technical schools.

There has been an increase in remote work for data-center employees, and in general thanks to the COVID-19 lockdowns, however the bulk of staff are still needed on-site for ongoing data center operations. That means some people on the operations teams need to be at or near the data centers. You can't power down a server and replace a bad hard drive remotely, after all. In addition, the growing dependency on digital services means data centers need 24/7 staffing.

Adding to the issue is that many data centers may be located in areas where there are currently few skilled staff; many hyperscale data centers are sited in remote regions, where availability of power and cooling are the main priorities. Again, there are some things that AI and automation can't do. But good luck recruiting 20-something staff to work third shift in a data center in a remote area.

Uptime Institute also raised the issue of ageing staff, but it made a bit of a leap. It found 45% of respondents in the 2019 survey had at least 20 years of experience, and the firm extrapolated that since these respondents are older, there could be what Uptime called a "silver tsunami" of retirements. But Uptime acknowledged that it seems likely this will be spread over many years and will occur mostly in North America and Western Europe.

The Uptime Institute report "Global data center staffing forecast 2021-2025" is available here for free email registration.

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