The data center talent shortage is not a new subject by any means. Yet the skills gap continues to present a very real and existential threat to the sector, which has become, for all of us, a fourth and vital utility.

Data published in 2021 by the Uptime Institute estimated that staffing requirements would grow from around 2.0 million full-time equivalents in 2019 to nearly 2.3 million in 2025 – a year that is fast approaching.

data center staff image emerson.jpg
– Emerson

Away from our sector, The World Economic Forum predicts that the world will create 150 million new technology jobs over the next five years, and by 2030, 77 percent of all jobs will require digital skills.

Further, a global survey by Capgemini and LinkedIn, found that half of the organizations surveyed believe the digital divide is widening, and that 54 percent of companies have lost competitive advantage due to talent shortages.

In many respects, the stats around skills shortages are truly staggering and it’s clear that as an industry, the problem cannot be solved by one organization.

So, with our insatiable consumption of data, digital services, and connectivity propelling demands for data center capacity at an all-time high, we must work together to build on the success of schemes like apprenticeships to educate and develop our future workforce.

Could apprentices hold the answer?

The beginning of February marks the UK’s National Apprenticeship Week, a week that brings together the people and the companies who recognize the positive impact that apprenticeships can make on businesses, the digital economy, and indeed, our critical industries.

This is something echoed by the UK government, which last year announced a host of measures to widen access to healthcare, science, and engineering apprenticeships, including the introduction of degree-based apprenticeship schemes and the provision of additional funding for employers.

Measures such as this are, really promising and will hopefully reverse the government data which currently shows a steady decline in the number of people taking apprenticeship roles. For example in the 2015/16 academic year, there were 509,400 UK apprenticeship starts, yet in 2023/23, there were just 337,140.

These numbers, however, do remain high, and I think are really quite positive, but on both accounts, the number of people under 19 pursuing said apprenticeships represents the smallest proportion of all students – just 23 percent.

Indeed, with a new general election around the corner, I’d call on the government to prioritize additional investments in skills, education, and apprentices to match the £29.5 billion it announced last year across the tech, life sciences, renewables, and infrastructure sectors, and to prioritize skills in its ambitions for economic success.

Through my own experience as an apprentice-trained engineer in the industrial sector, I know first-hand the incredible value and fresh ideas that apprentices can bring to an organization, and at Schneider Electric, we offer apprenticeships, internships, and graduate programs to help us innovate and build a greener, more sustainable future.

Skilled people will be vital to achieving the government's ambitions to become a world leader in science and technology by 2030, and it’s clear we’re at a crucial point for these industries.

Fundamentally we have to work together at the government and corporate levels in how we engage and attract early talent.

Communication is key

By its very nature, the data center sector has always been somewhat secretive, and contractually, it’s had to be. However, the misunderstanding of the industry's role in the wider digital ecosystem, and society at large, has compounded the talent shortage and left all of us in a quandary.

Early education is key, and there is hope as initiatives such as the Digital Futures Programme continue to grow and share the positive, long-term, fulfilling career opportunities offered by the sector. However, we can do more to highlight the benefits the sector has in leading the way to offering sustainability blueprints to solve the climate crisis and succeeding in the global net-zero ambition.

For example, while recognizing that data centers, in general, consume large amounts of energy, the sector is truly on the cutting-edge of sustainability.

A career within data centers, therefore, offers young people the chance to work across a multitude of areas – renewables, infrastructure, construction, engineering, sales, and marketing, among others – and to proactively help us build a greener and more digital future.

Another consideration is that when we communicate with early talent, are we doing so via the mediums they use? Are we choosing to engage on social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok, and are we addressing the media misconceptions?

Further, do young people have a diverse and inclusive set of role models they can both look up to and relate to? Initiatives like Kao Data’s Kao Academy to help children at an earlier age understand the importance and relevance of data centers to our everyday lives are great examples of things the industry is doing to raise awareness of the sector.

Moreover, are we addressing the problems in silos rather than collectively? There’s clearly considerable power in numbers, so maybe that’s where we should focus our efforts.

These are all questions that need answers, and one might argue that the traditional recruitment and communications mediums we’ve used need a new and fresh approach.

An ecosystem challenge

At the beginning of this article, I asked if we’re doing enough to engage early talent. There are lots of positive schemes which are being done. Can we do more? Of course.

We need to build on the successes such as apprenticeships, but we also need to think about how we do things differently, and as an industry, we have to address the problem together.

I believe the data center sector already contains everything we need to solve the skills crisis, but it needs collaborative thinking, and collective, sustainable action. Together, we have an opportunity to engage on all fronts and to deliver a clear, concise, and collective message to a new generation of skilled workers.

Now is the time to call upon the industry to challenge its traditional ways of working, and to place innovation at the heart of solving the talent crisis.