Like many professionals in the digital infrastructure field, I found my way into this industry by chance. I knew what building hospitals or high-rises entailed because I had grown up seeing these facilities and understood the benefits they provided to society. I pursued civil engineering degrees; unaware I could contribute to digital infrastructure.
But when I first toured a data center, it felt as if I had discovered an underground complex that nobody else knew existed. And I learned quickly that this was by design. Data centers, fiber optic networks, and PoPs are all shrouded in secrecy because of the inherent security risks. But this resulted in unintended consequences. The lack of visibility did not help attract young professionals to this industry.
Students, tradespeople, and young employees in tangential fields cannot aspire to do something they do not know exists. It’s a lose-lose situation in which professionals miss the opportunities for a rewarding career, and the industry sees increasing shortages of skilled professionals. One example of success has been recruiting military veterans into data center operations roles that leverage electrical skillsets deployed on nuclear submarines to high-voltage campuses. But this has been achieved by intentional action of organizations with specific intent. We need similar initiatives to close the gaps with other fields.
The demand for digital infrastructure has grown significantly in the past few years and has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic causing more of our lives and work to take place online. Today, we’re feeling the impacts of our industry’s earlier attempts at secrecy.
The data center community needs diverse professionals who can support global digital expansion and become a part of the next generation’s workforce. So much so, Uptime Institute Intelligence reports that more than half of data center operators are having trouble recruiting staff. And this figure is only expected to rise as the number of staff required to run global data centers is predicted to grow from 2 million in 2019 to nearly 2.3 million by 2025. Similarly, the latest AFCOM State of the Data Center report indicates that a majority of respondents (78%) actively try to entice young people into their organizations. And they’re getting increasingly creative with organizations offering free continued education, flexible and remote working options, and even meal accounts and gym memberships.
Separately, major construction programs cite a lack of skilled trade partners available to support ambitious growth plans. While some reactionary programs have had short-term success, the real goal is to create a long-term pipeline for early career professionals to access our industry. Awareness and visibility at this early stage are crucial to alleviating current and future workforce shortages.
Overcoming talent challenges, building a better digital tomorrow
Digital Infrastructure is an exciting field that offers exceptional career opportunities to people from various backgrounds; traditional engineering (mechanical, electrical, civil), cyber-security, facility operations, networking, and software development - just to name a few!
To stay ahead of the marching labor demand, here are a few ways we can each work to raise the profile of digital infrastructure among our future colleagues.
- Be vocal about what you do and why it matters. Young professionals can’t enter an industry of which they are not aware. Make sure to evangelize our industry and describe the benefits in tangible ways, IE, how the internet works. When you bring context to a young professional, you’ll see their eyes light up because they understand how it applies to what they’ve learned.
- Why not host a tour? Physical (or virtual!) tours can help people familiarize themselves with the industry and its significance and inspire. Today’s modern digital infrastructures are engineering marvels and contain some of the latest technologies to support critical systems used by all of us.
- Create opportunities to grow and flourish. Learning pathways close skill gaps and cultivate a more productive and happier workforce. Give young workers opportunities for ownership and continued opportunities to grow. Sometimes, this means continued education or internal management growth programs.
- Create a harmonious work-life balance. An environment that promotes autonomy and gratitude drives employee commitment and job satisfaction. Be sure to re-read that sentence; it’s a big part of how young people remain happy and loyal to an organization. Where appropriate, this can mean learning to make remote work successful. According to LinkedIn, in March 2020, only 1 in 67 paid jobs in the U.S. offered remote work. By the start of 2022, that number has ballooned to about 1 in 6. On top of that, remote jobs currently attract over 2.5 times the share of job applications compared to on-site jobs. So, don’t miss the changing trends in workplace expectations, especially among young workers.
- Leverage the power of networking. Good networking skills should be encouraged and taught at every level throughout a career. Word of mouth is great for young professionals to drive discussion and recruit like-minded individuals. A friend already in that industry is the most trusted referral for a new entrant. Encourage referrals as a way of recruiting new employees to the industry. Some firms even offer cash referral bonuses. Or, perhaps conference registrations could be subsidized for job seekers interested in our industry.
- Be involved early. Digital Infrastructure as a career is simply not known by many universities and, therefore, students. Building new programs, such as interdisciplinary minors, as options for undergraduate education is a vital way to drive interest for the students and prepare them for entry-level positions at companies in need of young talent. We’re only now seeing some undergraduate and graduate programs specifically focusing on data centers and digital infrastructure. Do what you can to get involved as early as possible.
There’s no secret that lots of us young people got adopted into this industry. However, today we are a growing part of the digital infrastructure community and are very much enjoying the career benefits that the industry provides. For those in this space, it’s our turn to take proactive steps to pass on that opportunity to the next generation while supporting the future growth of the digital infrastructure upon which our society increasingly depends.
Skyler Holloway is a former Facebook program manager and currently serves as Technical Products and Programs Lead at Switch where he supports the firm’s chief technology officer with executive products and programs. Holloway is also a member of the iMasons Education Workgroup.