Unlocking the Secrets to Attracting Top Data Center Talent

As the data center talent shortage worsens and the industry nears "mass retirement," uncover the most effective solutions for the future.

Drew Robb

May 14, 2024

4 Min Read
Unlocking the Secrets to Attracting Top Data Center Talent

The data center talent shortage has long been discussed. But what are the root causes? What are the evolving skills and expertise needed to function in the data center of tomorrow? And what positive strides are being made to address the workforce crisis?

The 2024 State of the Data Center Report by AFCOM highlighted the extent of the problem. Eighty-five percent of data center personnel are males, and 70% are 45 and older. Clearly, there is a need for more diversity and an injection of youth.

“We are on the precipice of mass retirement,” said Phillip Koblence, co-founder and managing director of the Nomad Futurist Foundation, during this year’s Data Center World conference. “Over 40% of data center personnel have been in the industry for 20 years or more.”

The AFCOM industry report noted the positions most in demand in data centers. Engineers, multi-skilled operators, physical and cybersecurity specialists, and power and electrical facilities specialists are those poised for the most growth.

As well as cybersecurity skills, a recent Foote Partners salary report named AI as a key skill for the data center of the future.

“The deepening threat landscape and rapidly evolving high momentum technologies like AI are forcing organizations to move more quickly in filling specific gaps in their job architectures,” said David Foote, chief analyst and research officer of Foote Partners. “Lately, employers have been investing heavily in AI tech in both salaried jobs and skills premiums.”

Related:A Guide to the Top Data Center Security Certifications

Saturated Talent Market

Part of the data center talent problem is that the market for trained and experienced data center resources is tapped out. More and more data center managers have reached the conclusion that they need to pare down their qualification requirements. Those with the desired years of experience and possessing the ideal certifications and qualifications are either difficult to find or go to the highest bidder.

“You can’t be competitive if you demand high levels of experience and multiple qualifications,” said Bryan Darby, vice president of strategic technology initiatives at QTS Data Centers. Instead, he partners with community colleges to add classes that most closely meet QTS needs in terms of skillsets.

T.J. Ciccone, vice president of critical operations at Stack Infrastructure, concurs. His organization is eliminating certain experience and qualification requirements. The company prefers to issue job descriptions for apprentice technicians that train them on the job and pay well.

Related:The DEI Illusion: Breaking Gender Bias in Data Centers

Tips from AFCOM Chapter Members

AFCOM chapters across the U.S. are working hard to address the data center talent shortage. Most have started programs to attract more young people to the industry or collaborate with educational institutions. However, some data center professionals have put off engaging in such partnerships as they are anxious about the potential flaws that may be present in their ideas.

“If you are looking at doing something to attract young talent, just start,” urged Mark Moody, vice president of sales and marketing at Gateview Technologies and a member of AFCOM’s Potomac chapter. “Don’t worry about trying to make it perfect at first. Learn as you go, learn from others, and momentum will build.”

Ciccone helps run AFCOM internship programs with local community colleges in the Washington, D.C., area. After running it for several years, almost half of the staff of his data center staff now come from its community college program. He even helped the college create a curriculum. He’s been teaching it now for six years. He is also touring Loudoun County students and teachers through his facility every week.

“There is plenty of thirst for knowledge on data centers and IT careers,” said Ciccone. 

Koblence believes the industry needs to work harder to boost visibility. Young people are largely unaware of the potential career paths available in data centers.

“We need to introduce our industry to people earlier,” he said. “Most young people grow up with an iPad and iPhone and know how to use technology but don’t pause to think about how it works or the data center infrastructure that underpins it.”

Accordingly, his organization brings young people on field trips to data centers and brings speaker panels to high schools. For example, someone from TikTok, Netflix, or a well-known tech firm might participate and tell the kids that they couldn’t operate without data centers.

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Staff turnover is a major concern in IT. What works to keep personnel within an organization? Ciccone said 100% of young people put through an intern program stayed on in the data center. Mentorship, too, plays a part.

“I like to lay out a career path for my new personnel and mentor them,” said Ryan Gruver, IT director at Banner Health. “Even if they leave, I stay in touch and help them.”

Some data center managers grow discouraged if a well-apprenticed and mentored person moves on to a fresh opportunity. However, Koblence said this is back-to-front thinking.

“Some ask: What if you train them and they leave?” said Koblence. “However, there is another way to look at it: What if you don’t train them and they stay.”

About the Author(s)

Drew Robb

Drew Robb has been a full-time professional writer and editor for more than twenty years. He currently works freelance for a number of IT publications.

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