Data center

Potomac's Internship Program Attracts Rising Data Center Stars

AFCOM chapter aims to ward off 'silver tsunami' by offering internships to students looking to replace legacy data center workers.

A recent website search revealed 25,614 available data center internships on Glassdoor.com alone. Average salary: nearly $48,000.

That certainly illustrates companies’ concerns that an aging workforce and evolving data center landscape is putting them in jeopardy of filling key positions. While until recently, doubt surrounded whether a skilled worker shortage would come to fruition, statistics prove otherwise. In fact, they show the shortage is already here.

Dubbed the “silver tsunami” by the Alliance for Aging Research, the trend of 10,000 people a day applying for Social Security benefits clearly has ramifications across all industries but especially IT. An aging workforce plays a huge role in a skills shortage. Of AFCOM members surveyed recently, 73 percent were between 46 and 61with just 21 percent below age 45.

While the pool of qualified professionals for the data center is stretched thin, the roles themselves are also evolving—making it that much more difficult for IT. The transition from legacy systems to the cloud, convergence, the Internet of Things (IoT), virtualization and mobility are changing and adding job descriptions at an alarming rate.

Many AFCOM members who participated in our 2018 State of the Data Center Industry survey shared their recruiting difficulties. One in three reported problems finding data center facility technicians, engineers and operators, followed by cloud architect.

According to a study by TEKsystems, 81 percent of IT leaders say it’s difficult to find quality candidates, and almost half don’t expect to fill an IT position within the anticipated time frame. Meanwhile, only about one-third of data center managers and CIOs believe their organization have the skills in-house to address their needs.

So, what’s the answer? In-house training works if those being trained are willing and not nearing retirement age. You could send current employees back to school, but it doesn’t help with additional staff required for the longer haul.

The best answer, for now, seems to be acquiring new blood. As a result, the use of interns has grown extensively as the previous Glassdoor figure suggests. And, the 8.6 million data centers across the globe as of 2017 are all clamoring for the best and brightest. It’s best not to wait for them to come to you.

The Potomac Chapter is just one local AFCOM group proactively seeking interns. As Chapter President Dave Mulholland explained: “Back in 2016, the chapter embarked on a mission to deliver internships because it was always difficult to hire good people; and we felt that it was due to a lack of exposure to the data center industry.”

Finally, after some successful events to help with funding, the chapter had the cash to facilitate a program.  In January of this year, “We put the stake in the ground, and we committed to doing it in 2018,” he said.

Then came the hard work. After contacting several schools that either had large dollar commitments for long-term scholarships or wanted to choose the student, not the chapter, Mulholland and the chapters’ efforts paid off.

“We really were at our wits end. Then, an opportunity dropped in our laps from a third-year mechanical engineering student at University of Virginia (UVA) in Charlottesville.”

Jeff Ivey, chapter secretary and general manager of data centers for Corporate Office Properties Trust (COPT) in Washington D.C., coached hockey in his spare time. One of his students wrote him to see if there were any jobs available. 

“Jeff and I talked and quickly gathered the Board for a vote. It passed unanimously; we made an offer, and Jacob Fishman became our first intern. We paid him a competitive salary, and each board member that volunteered to host him, put him to work for a week or two and immersed him in their respective businesses,” Mulholland explained.

“We strove to make the time that he spent with us interesting and fulfilling as he visited two data center companies (Sabey and COPT); a manufacturer’s rep firm (CPG); an engineering consultant firm (EDG2); a data center service company (Technoguard); and a data center manufacturing company (PDI).”

Fishman, heading into his junior year at UVA, found the internship to be a rewarding experience.

“Cycling through each board members’ business opened my eyes to the data center world as a whole. As a mechanical engineering student, it was very interesting to learn about all the different ways mechanical engineering involves itself into the data center world,” he said. “From hearing about the upsides and downsides of alternative cooling systems, to understanding the uses of UPS and other power systems, and ways to distribute the power, I learned a lot about the ins and outs of the data center industry through the internship. It was a great experience that I will carry with me throughout the rest of my business and professional life.”

The experience was equally successful for the Mulholland and the Potomac Chapter.

“We look forward to continuing an internship program and develop new jobs for college graduates. It’s our way to give back, and it was very exciting to see it happen!”

Donna Jacobs, who holds several board positions with AFCOM, knows the importance of internships from both sides of the coin. She still calls the internship she landed at the Delaware County Planning Department her “favorite job of all.” Plus, the IT senior director of Technology Services for Pennsylvania University, has experience in hiring and guiding students as well. She offered these tips:

Having a thorough understanding of your intern candidates' program is critical to achieving a complimentary match to your budgetary options. Some programs may not require student compensation but will require a performance assessment to gauge student success. This is particularly true if there is the potential to obtain college credits for the experience.

You can’t teach someone how to get along with people. These skills are developed over many years through culture, family, experiences, etc. and are innate to an individual's personality. That said, helping to mature those soft skills is still part of the package. Many interns have never developed an agenda, facilitated a meeting, or even spoken in front of a group of individuals comprised of different age groups.

Low-risk projects are another key area where internship opportunities can provide dual benefits for students and businesses alike. Teamed with a management sponsor, the intern in an entry-level project management role provides one of the most comprehensive experiences for developing:

  • Accountability and ownership
  • An understanding of project methodology and its role in a project's successful execution and delivery
  • Business documentation skills such as project scope, requirements, etc.
  • An introduction to risk management by assessing assets impacting project risk
  • Planning and meeting management skills
  • Conflict resolution skills
  • (Project) resource planning skills, including mediation
  • Presentation skills
  • Basic budget management skills
  • Ability to discriminate project issues, capture, document, and drive to resolution
  • Strategies for adapting to varying group dynamics

Learn more about AFCOM and its local chapter program.

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