The Data Center Skills Gap

The data center industry has certainly felt the impact of the economic meltdown. But data center employment has remained reasonably stable in a period in which more than 4.6 million U.S. jobs have disappeared.

“We haven’t seen many jobs being cut in data centers, and this is certainly good news for our industry,” said Richard Sawyer, a principal in HP’s Critical Facilities. “The data center world tends to be more stable than the world around us.”

In fact, the data center industry reflects a skills gap that has become more pronounced during the downturn. As data center demand remains steady, many companies are seeking skilled staff, and having trouble finding qualified people. In a recent presentation at Data Center World, Sawyer noted that despite the huge job losses, more than 2 million jobs remain unfilled in the U.S.

“The people who are getting laid off may not be the people we need for those jobs,” he said. “You’re going to see a lot of focus on retraining workers in the new federal budget. If you set up a retraining program (for data center staff),you may be able to get funding. This will be a huge issue in the next two to three years.”

Training is a huge issue because of the specialized nature of data centers, and the range of skills required to operate them. “There’s a premium for people in the data center industry,” said Sawyer. “These positions are valuable, and there’s no funnel to get trained workers into the data center industry. “

Core skills for data center staff aren't taught at many colleges, Sawyer noted. “The most successful group in creating data center staffers is the military, especially nuclear submarines, which share many of the characteristics of data centers,” he said. “You can think of the data center as a nuclear submarine on land. The one thing you want to do in the data center is work as a team. Some of the things that the military does well involve discipline.

The specialized nature of data centers places a premium on the hiring process, and identifying candidates that can succeed. This can be a big challenge, Sawyer said. “A lot of data center mangers and operators don’t have a lot of human resources training,” he said. “And with the advent of cost-cutting, many HR staffers tend to be junior.”

Sawyer recommends hiring a recruiter specializing in data center placement. “Internal HR is rarely effective at hiring for the data center,” he said. “This is probably the most important thing you do in the data center, because people are the most important assets we have. Hiring a good person takes a lot of time, and it requires a specialist. And that costs money.”

How can you cost-justify that expense in today's frugal spending environment? Sawyer suggests placing the cost of hiring the right people in the context of the much larger investment in operating the data center, including hardware and utility bills. In an average data center, Sawyer said, total spending on staffing works out to about 38 percent of the utility bill.

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