How the data center industry is bridging the skills gap

Data center operators are rolling out programs to train the next generation of talent

May 10, 2023

The people who are essential to day-to-day data center operations are fast becoming a scarce resource as technologies powering these facilities rapidly develop.

More than half of data center operators are struggling to get top talent in the door, while 42% are finding it tougher to retain their people amid a raging talent war, data from Uptime Institute shows.

The dearth of skilled talent is pushing the data center industry to roll out training programs to expand the pool of qualified professionals, according to JLL’s Global Data Center Outlook.

“Data centers are a subset of the perennial skills shortage in the information technology hardware and software space, and the digital economy,” says Dr. Glen Duncan, Data Center Research Director, Asia Pacific, JLL.

The talent shortage is being felt across nearly all markets, but it is particularly acute in emerging markets such as Philippines, Taiwan, and Malaysia (Johor Bahru), where the industry is still in its infancy.

“It all boils down to economies of scale. The business case for setting up sophisticated training centers in smaller markets is tougher to justify since data centers typically only require a small team to operate,” he says. “For a standard 12MW site, you’ll only need a team of 20 to 22 people, excluding the management staff from the owner or the major customer.”

In the coming years, most companies predict the talent shortfall to be greatest for IT technicians and workers trained in cloud computing and Artificial Intelligence (AI), according to those surveyed by data center giant Equinix.

Nurturing the next generation

To plug the gap, many data center and cloud companies have joined forces with academic institutions to develop training courses.

In the UK, University Technical College (UTC) Heathrow teamed up with leading data center organizations to design a curriculum that prepares students for a career within the digital infrastructure industry.

In Singapore, technology giant Microsoft partnered with the Institute of Technical Education to set up its first academy in Asia teaching applied data center skills. Last year, social media giant Meta also launched new upskilling initiatives in the city-state to empower Singaporeans for digital jobs of the future.

Besides addressing the gap, there’s also a strategic market angle to nurturing talent, according to Duncan.

“It’s in the interest of companies to train up a critical mass of skilled technical professionals well-versed in a particular proprietary technology,” he says. “They can gain an edge over competitors if they’re able to provide adequate skilled support for their solutions.”

A ready pool of available talent is not only attractive to the market, but also good for the workers who will be equipped with technical skills that are transferable between companies, Duncan adds.

Despite the proliferation of such programs, data center development and the advancement of adjacent technologies continue to outpace the rate of upskilling, leaving operators to jostle for skilled talent in the short term.

Addressing the labor shortage

Data from Uptime Institute indicates that the two-million-strong talent pool in the data center industry is on track to grow to 2.3 million by next year.

In the meantime, though, alternative solutions are urgently needed. “Many operators are resorting to engaging external services firms with data center practices like JLL to staff and run these facilities in the interim,” Duncan says.

But the emergence of technologies, including AI applications, could complicate the labor shortage since the types of specialized skillsets in short supply may change quickly, he warns.

“What was needed last year may differ from now because there are peaks and troughs in terms of skills demand whenever new technologies are launched,” says Duncan. “The advancements in AI, for instance, could profoundly alter the nature and the areas of skill shortage as we know it.”

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