The skills gap is one of the greatest challenges the datacenter industry is facing. The future of any industry depends on the quality of the young people it attracts. The historically low profile of datacenters as a career choice, combined with increasing management and operational complexity plus local shortages of suitably qualified staff, places a premium on attracting new blood into the industry. New technologies and new platforms are impacting the future datacenter workforce and there is growing concern about how we can find and prepare young mission critical engineers for the software-defined datacenter of tomorrow.
The lack of young engineers doesn’t just affect the datacenter sector. Engineering alone accounts for 25% of gross value added for the UK economy and manufactured goods account for 50% of UK exports. Science, engineering and technology underpin the whole economy, including power generation and electricity distribution, utilities, the food chain, healthcare, our physical transportation and information as well as our communications and data infrastructure.
The acronym STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) was coined in the US as a term used to group together these academic disciplines and the term is typically used when addressing education policy and curriculum choices in schools to improve competitiveness in science and technology development.
According to Dr Ajay Sharman, London & South East Regional Network Lead for the National STEM Learning Center “STEM subjects are seen as critically important to the UK’s future economic success. Engineers and other STEM professionals are also pervasive across the wider economy and can be found in a wide variety of sectors from arts and entertainment, to sports, education and financial services. Some are employed in STEM roles in non-STEM sectors, others are in non-STEM roles, but recruited because of their STEM background and problem-solving capabilities”.
Dr Ajay Sharman, STEM
“The application of STEM contributes greatly to the UK’s wealth, and it is well known that engineering creates the modern world’s infrastructure. STEM activities contribute significantly to the UK economy. Various studies have shown how broad areas within STEM generate wealth and contribute to our economy, including £370bn gross value added (GVA) from ‘easily identified’ engineering sectors in the UK economy; £208bn GVA from mathematical sciences research; the UK ICT industry estimated to be worth £58bn each year alone. STEM skills are also critical in the move to rebalance the UK economy and improve productivity. STEM and STEM skills are seen as fundamental to the long-term prosperity of the UK economy and it is our young people, leaving school that will hold the vital ingredient”.
Whilst there are a good percentage of females occupying HR and Marketing positions in the datacenter industry there are relatively few in Sales, Engineering, Construction, Project Management and Operations roles. According to DCPro, the training division of Datacenterdynamics, the average datacenter engineer is a 55-year old male which is generally reflected in other industries.
Dr Sharman says that “Women make up 47% of the UK workforce but only 12% of engineers and technicians. BME (Black & Minority Ethnics) make up 12% of the UK workforce but only 8% of engineers and technicians. To keep pace with demand 203,000 people with Level 3+ engineering skills are required per year to 2024. The most positive projection of graduates entering into engineering is still 20,000 fewer than needed”.
At a datacenter conference in London in December 2017 Jenny Hogan, at that time Operations Director at Digital Reality stated “perception of the industry is a definite turn-off for women”, and from her own experience she is familiar with “sitting in a room and being the only female with around 20 male datacenter operators, from designers, engineers to sales people”. It also appears that apart from being a masculine industry, the industry is further perceived to be inflexible and is not keeping pace with the work/life balance demanded on a contemporary workforce. This impacts on both men and women and is identified as a disadvantage to attracting a broader labour pool.
One of the main problems for the datacenter sector is that few people actually know what it is and what major function it performs in our daily lives, let alone the career opportunities on offer. This lack of understanding of the industry sector reaches far and wide from schools, colleges, Universities and the general public!
The panel agreed that urgent action is needed and a much more cohesive and concerted action from the datacenter community is required. Dr Sharman commented, “It is important young people meet real people doing real jobs and asking a number of key questions, for example ‘what do you do?’, ‘how did you get to what you do?’ and ‘how much do you get paid?’. He spoke about how the industry could encourage employees to volunteer as STEM Ambassadors to visit schools and educate students about datacenters and the career opportunities they offer”.
STEM Ambassadors are volunteers from a wide range of jobs and backgrounds who are passionate about inspiring young people to pursue STEM careers. With a growing community of over 30,000 volunteers, they are an important and exciting, free of charge resource for teachers and others working with young people across the UK. A government supported national flagship programme, the STEM Ambassador programme allows employees from the industry, including those from the datacenter industry, to engage meaningfully with schools and young people.
Dr Ajay Sharman, STEM
Dr Terri Simpkin, Higher and Further Education Principal at CNet Training has researched occupational decision making for many years and suggests that exposure to broad occupational choice must start early. She says “we start making choices about our future work from a very early age – as young as four or five and we’re influenced most strongly by those around us. Once we’ve disregarded an occupation we’ll rarely reconsider it later in life. Getting into schools early with general messages to dispel the myth that datacenter roles such as engineering is a job for men or the middle classes is critically important. Waiting until later in the school career is too late.” Broadening out the education to teachers and parents is important too. “Kids look to those around them first and foremost for tips and direction on what they should do when they grow up. Being visible as an employer of choice is one of the smartest things a sector or organisation can do. The brand is important but it’s a long-term proposition, it doesn’t happen overnight.”
STEM Ambassadors help bring a new and inspiring perspective to STEM lessons and career opportunities, able to genuinely change young peoples’ minds about misconceptions they have about industry and engineering and technology. From mentoring, to judging a school STEM competition or helping at a careers’ fair, volunteers can get involved in a range of activities to demonstrate the possibilities and breadth of STEM pathways and careers.
Becoming a STEM Ambassador is a rewarding and challenging experience which can contribute to both personal and professional development goals. Schools and teachers have a limited understanding of the datacenter industry and the STEM Ambassador programme allows role models from the sector to create a better understanding of the opportunities open to young people.
Although a number of datacenters are increasingly launching a number of apprenticeships with school leavers to fill employment gaps, it is clear, the datacenter industry needs a step change in thinking, on how better to engage with a new young audience, to ensure young talent is encouraged to work in the sector and support innovation for the new datacenters of the future.
If you are a chief executive or head of a company involved in datacenters, or an employee within the datacenter sector, wishing to engage with young people at schools, become a STEM Ambassador and inspire a new generation. Help to create a sector forum of like-minded employers and explore an embedded approach to attracting new talent to the datacenter industry.
Peter Hannaford, Datacenter People Chairman