Data Centers Scrambling to Fill IT Skills Gap

Military veterans, local universities and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs are gaining in popularity as ways to strengthen the data center talent pipeline.

Karen Riccio

February 7, 2017

7 Min Read
Data Centers Scrambling to Fill IT Skills Gap
(Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

It’s a tough world when it comes to recruiting and retaining staff. 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.

This is being made all the more acute by the changes taking place within IT. The cloud, convergence, the Internet of Things (IoT), virtualization and mobility have shifted the demands being placed upon the data center. Modern technology configurations and a reliance on external services are shifting staffing and training priorities.

“The evolving digital world and the cloud require a change in data center strategy with different skill sets coming to prominence,” says Karsten Scherer, global analyst relations lead for TEKsystems.

He sees a growing tension between traditional data centers and the mega data centers operated by service providers such as Google, Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure. The latter group is either increasing facility size or adding new data center facilities.

“They are building out their data center presence to satisfy demand and they compete with traditional data centers for the same pool of talent,” says Scherer. “Coupled with attrition, an aging workforce and younger people wanting to work elsewhere, we have competition for a dwindling pool of labor regarding data center skills that is only getting worse.”

While the pool of qualified professionals for the data center is stretched thin, the roles themselves are evolving. The growing prevalence of hybrid environments mean that data center managers have to learn to deal with a mix of on-premises assets as well as off-premises services they source from vendors via the cloud. As a result, the building blocks of job descriptions are beginning to reflect this: Scherer notes a higher emphasis on wordings like emotional intelligence, bridge-building and silo-busting, as well as terms such as creative, adaptable, strategic, innovative, alliance-builder and negotiator cropping up more and more in job requirements.

“Traditional data center skills won’t go away, but there is a greater need for skills on how to manage cloud vendor relationships as well as aligning the cloud to the overall goals of the business,” says Scherer. “Architecture-oriented roles and business analysts are seen as critical in order to pull all of these parts of the ecosystem together and help them talk to each other.”

TEKsystems’ annual survey indicates that programmer and developer skill sets are the hardest to place, and have remained so for over the past three years. For 2015, software engineers were the second most difficult role to fill, while architects, project managers and security specialists came in third, fourth and fifth respectively. Additionally, 51 percent expect to pay increased salaries for these skill sets due to the competitive nature of these roles.

Staff Development

Greg Schulz, an analyst with StorageIO Group urged data center managers to develop broader skill sets among their staff. A combination of infrastructure skills spanning several areas among servers, storage, networking hardware, software, services, cloud, virtualization and data protection will be vital to have as data center personnel will be expected to cover a much wider area. A few specialists will remain, but more and more staff will be required to possess a broad range of skills. Data center managers, therefore, are advised to begin training personnel in duties that sit beyond their current assigned roles.

“Data center infrastructure management (DCIM) is another area that will become more important over time,” says Schulz. “It addresses habitats for technology and facilities, including energy management, how it ties to the applications and the work they are doing.”

Scherer echoes this. He says that given the increased focus on brokerage duties between the cloud and the internal data center, several staff should be trained to act as the interface between vendors, IT and line of business leaders. These individuals have to be good at managing contracts and Service Level Agreements (SLAs), procurement and more. These are not always talents that come naturally to technical specialists so some training is probably going to be necessary.

“The cloud requires a broader knowledge base and set of skills, so this will impact the more focused support roles like storage admins, server admins, client services and help desk,” says Scherer. “Many organizations are re-training these IT pros to augment their skill sets toward a wider set of tasks.”

New Talent

However, training alone won’t cut it. Attrition is inevitable. Some personnel will retire, some will relocate, and a few could well be poached by the Googles of this world with the allure of bean bag seats, air hockey tables and an endless supply of M&Ms in the workspace. So data centers will have to up their game to find new talent.

“As far as attracting new talent, it’s important to communicate what’s being brought to the table that’s of value to the job candidate—not just salary and benefits, but also the kinds of projects the employee will work on, the room for growth and the skills that can be acquired,” said Scherer.

In some cases, it may be wise to engage a third party to help find qualified staff additions. TEKsystems surveys indicate that data centers are increasingly leaning on external partners to find candidates for their open roles.

Non-traditional talent pools are also an important area to include in the search for new blood. Military veterans, local universities and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs are gaining in popularity as ways to strengthen the talent pipeline.

And, AFCOM and Data Center World Global - 2017 in Los Angeles, April 3-6 are taking action to help this issue and plan for the future by introducing the industry to college students and individuals interested in STEM topics. This educational session will welcome local area college students to the industry and the event. Immediately following this panel introduction, students will be given a tour of the Data Center World and HostingCon exhibit halls to talk to industry leaders and vendors. Find out more here.

Skills Gap

Data center managers are advised to heed this advice even if the current picture in their own data center is relatively rosy. Numbers from numerous sources all point to the same thing—challenging days lie ahead on the personnel front.

As well as the TEKsystems survey results showcased above, the latest CompTIA IT Skills Gap survey shows the existence of a significant shortfall of data center talent. Most firms (72 percent) plan on addressing this problem with staff training. Additionally, the latest report from Foote Partners discovered that the average market value for a total of 368 IT certifications being tracked has increased for eight consecutive quarters. According to Ted Lane, an analyst at Foote Partners, this is unprecedented in the 16 years his company has been tracking the reporting compensation for IT skills and certifications. Similarly, 406 non-certified skills being tracked posted gains in market value in 2015.

In other words, IT skills are in high demand and this is showing up as higher pay rates. Therefore, data center managers can expect it to be tougher to hire in new talent, they are likely going to have to pay more for these individuals if they have any chance of landing them, and they are going to face far more pressure than ever to retain their current staff roster, many of whom will be on the shortlists of persuasive headhunters. All of this is happening while the cloud sucks more and more functions out of internal data centers, threatening their very existence.

“Data center managers must try to ensure the overall acumen of their team grows to include capabilities to work with their cloud vendors effectively,” says Scherer. “Companies that don’t have the internal firepower to manage or guide those relationships and hold those vendors accountable regarding performance toward their business objectives will not reap the potential that the cloud model promises.”

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