The UK datacentre industry is in the midst of a prolonged and well-publicised skills crisis, as there are simply not enough people entering the sector despite more students studying science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects.
Might it be time to look again at how best to attract candidates from other walks of life, such as career changers?
That's according to Jacqueline Davis, research analyst at Uptime Intelligence, which reported in its 2023 datacentre survey analysis that UK trade-school and university graduate talent pipelines to the datacentre remain “immature”, with insufficient talent coming through and candidates getting poached by other sectors.
“People who do get qualified applicants into jobs find them hired away,” she says in a related webinar. Thirty-five percent of Uptime survey respondents report poaching – a higher proportion than in other industries.
Uptime's conversations suggest the problem is mostly in operations and merger and acquisition (M&A) related roles, with entry-level operations and junior staff being the classic pipeline for talent working up towards staffing other areas of the datacentre such as electrical or mechanical design. And attracting more women will be key.
“Most of our respondents are at 10% of women in these teams or less,” Davis says. “We've even designed our categories to pick out those [organisations with] 10% from those at less than 5% versus those with none at all. So that's not a great story.”
Although the industry has tried to “rebalance gender” in recent years, that is yet to show up in Uptime's data. The trends of years past around datacentre design, build and operations remain “overwhelmingly male”, according to Davis.
Gail Stapleford, CyrusOne international senior director of human resources, points out there's a massive marketing and education challenge for datacentres.
“The perception and the reality are quite different out there. Five years ago, when I came into service here, I had no idea what a datacentre was and many people do not,” she says.
Yet multiple skill sets and backgrounds can make a difference in the datacentre world, whether “at the front end” or in the datacentre itself. CyrusOne has found great candidates among, for instance, mechanical or electrical engineering graduates leaving the armed services.
“If you can make a submarine work, you can probably be quite useful in a datacentre,” Stapleford says. “But we have people from all sorts of different backgrounds and anybody can be trained in various skills and processes.”
Work with “carefully selected” recruitment agency partners, she recommends, avoiding a “scattergun approach”.
CyrusOne discovers many useful candidates via referrals as well - one hire will suggest other people who might suit and also be interested, and so on. That's the power of having people in general talking more about the datacentre and what they do, which can itself bring candidates to the door, she says.
When it comes to flexibility, consider proactively offering job shares or adjusting shift patterns, and ensure the company is receptive when employees need something to change, perhaps because something in their home life has altered, she adds.
“Within our datacentres at the moment, they are all full-time shifts, either eight or 12 hours, but that's not to say they need be,” Stapleford says, adding that those roles can still deliver useful certainty for parents, for example, because they can know a year or more in advance when they will be working.
Wendy Shearer, director of smart cities and ecosystems at edge infrastructure provider Pulsant, broadly agrees. Datacentres need to market their opportunities better, increasing appeal to those outside the industry.
Colocation, hosting and datacentre roles can be flexible as well as inherently innovative and exciting. Opportunities exist to work regionally, or on key challenges from sustainability to connectivity – especially as the industry moves more into managed services, edge-to-compute, and cloud, she points out.
“I put my hand up for this role about a year ago, having worked in public-sector IT for half my life,” Shearer says. “It's been brilliant because I can create something the way that I think it's needed. And you can train people on the tech, if they have the right sort of attitudes and behaviours.”
Shearer admits that for her, working in tech happened via someone she met while travelling who was setting up an IBM reseller and suggested she get in touch. To solve the skills shortage, datacentres need to proactively seek out those with aptitude and affinity, including a strong work ethic and desire to learn. Consider cross-industry collaborations, facilitating time and resource to grow talent, through specialist training firms like FDM for returners and government programmes available.
Also, offer flexibility. “I call myself a first-generation BlackBerry mum, allowed to go part-time when I had my babies,” Shearer says. “That meant a lot. Having a BlackBerry, I could always be contacted.”
Ways to broaden your view of hiring
James Lloyd-Townshend, chairman and chief executive at Netsuite recruiter Anderson Frank, says candidates often believe that penetrating tech niches may be too difficult. They are also often unaware of transferable skills they might have: “Demystify the nature and purpose of datacentre work, which can sound very vague.”