Talking about the next generation

Swisscom and kids.jpg

The telecoms industry has a problem: its workers are getting old, and recruiting school and university leavers is hard, as they are unaware of the work we do, data centre and telecoms people tell Alan Burkitt-Gray

On 2 August, 265 young people started vocational training at Swisscom, more than half of whom are opting for an apprenticeship in information and communications technology (ICT), while four school leavers began bachelor’s degree courses in IT with integrated practice provided by the company. And Swisscom’s chief executive Christoph Aeschlimann (pictured) welcomed 230 newly qualified Swisscom apprentices at their graduation event and took a selfie with them.

Providing more than 800 apprenticeships, as well as academic courses, is how Switzerland’s incumbent operator is tackling the shortage of young people coming into the business – an industry-wide problem that is affecting telecoms carriers, mobile operators and data centre companies alike.

Marc Marthaler, who heads ICT vocational training for the Swisscom group and holds the admirable job title of “head of next generation”, says: “We’re noticing a growing desire and demand for more flexible training models. I’m therefore all the more pleased to be welcoming 265 new apprentices and four degree students to their training and degree programmes, and a world of unlimited possibility.”

We have all heard of “the great resignation”, which is seeing many people reassess their careers and decide to retire or leave their jobs as the Covid-19 pandemic eases. But it’s more compicated than that.

“That’s both true and false,” says Jerry DeMartino of the great resignation. He’s a former telecoms executive for MCI and Globenet who is now a recruiter for the industry. “There’s such a demand in the industry at the moment, but people are leaving jobs like never before.”

In the United States, 3.5 million left their jobs, but 3.2 million then found new roles, says DeMartino, adding that “there are 11 million open positions in the US”.

Many of those who quit their jobs left to search for nicer places to work and live, as Microsoft Teams and Zoom have replaced face-to-face meetings for many of us. For example, Americans from the north-east are heading to Florida and Texas, DeMartino says, adding that “Everyone in the north of Europe is looking at the south of Europe. Talented people are pretty mobile.”

Aidan Walker, head of communications and technology at UK-based executive search company Expand, notes that this means the over-the-top companies and hyperscalers “are attracting all the talent. We’re in the largest hiring spree for a long time”.

Walker explains that when one company starts large-scale hiring “it creates holes in other organisations”, especially if the hirers are looking for specific skills, such as SD WAN. “They’re stealing from other companies,” he says.


Industry-wide effort

While many companies are aware of this staffing issue, there appear to be few, if Walker says that while companies are competing to recruit more people away from their rivals, few are doing anything to encourage people leaving schools, colleges or universities to enter the industry.

The Institute of Telecommunications Professionals (ITP) is one of the few organisations that is. It started off 116 years ago as the Institution of Post Office Electrical Engineers, back when the Post Office ran most of the UK’s telecoms services. Today the ITP is an independent organisation that is based in spare space in a west London BT telephone exchange.

Here, Charlotte Goodwill runs the organisation, which focuses on the professional development of people in the digital industry. Before taking over as ITP’s CEO in June, she was its head of apprenticeships, so recruitment of young people is an area she knows well.

“All companies in the industry are experiencing the same issues,” she says. “They’re competing with companies paying high salaries and this makes it difficult to keep staff.”

The heart of the problem, Goodwill says, is that students studying science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects at school “don’t see telecoms as a viable career option, even though young people are really tech savvy”.

While children know what Facebook, Google, Spotify and TikTok, and Apple, Microsoft and Samsung, are, they do not know how these are all linked together by fibre and radio waves, nor what data centres, where all of this comes together, are.

“So many people don’t know what the green boxes are,” says Goodwill, referring to BT’s streetside cabinets.

The ITP, which has a global membership of 5,000, is trying to remedy this by running apprenticeship programmes on behalf of several companies in the industry. “We have more than 450 people in the digital industry,” Goodwin says.

ITP’s work starts early, during years 5 and 6 in UK schools, when children are aged nine to 11. At that age children want to talk about their future jobs, says Goodwill, everything from hairdressing to being a pilot. So, she has to ask, “Why do they not know what a network engineer is?”


Educating the young

The recruitment problem extends from telecoms engineering to data centres, says Joe Palmer, VP of human resources at Colt Data Centre Services (DCS).

“The industry has some work to do to expand knowledge of the work we do,” he admits. People do not know what the data centres behind Tinder, shopping and Netflix are, he says. “Tell people about it, if you want them to work in an industry that’s got a pretty good growth story – especially if there’s another pandemic.”

So where do you start? “Education,” says Palmer. He explains that Colt is “starting that education at university and school level” by sending some of its engineers to visit universities to tell students that the industry “is a good way to use those grades. Opportunities are unrivalled in the data centre world, if you want to grow your career and grow it quickly”, he says.

“And we’re also getting people back from a break, either for childrearing or for another reason.”

But Palmer warns that the industry’s existing age profile is high – a warning repeated by many of those I interviewed for this feature.

“There’s a wave of retirement coming up over the next 15 years,” he says, before asking: “What does retirement mean?”

Today, retirement does not have to mean stepping back from the nine-to-five world, getting a presentation clock and going on your way. “People may be caring for others, either childcare or adult care, and we in Colt try to be as accommodating as we can,” says Palmer.

This means Colt is providing staff with extra time off and a shorter working week. “Although if you have a long weekend, all the emails keep coming in,” muses Palmer. So Colt is trying to create a company-wide holiday, so that everyone has the same day off. “That means when you come back, there should be fewer emails!”

While these policies may help to retain people once they are in a company, they do not help recruitment. So, Colt also takes part in a diversity and inclusion programme that encourages women to enter STEM careers.

“We’re also telling the ‘hearts and minds’ story, showing that the industry is helping us keep the lights on,” says Palmer. “Telecoms has been helping hospitals and it is helping us get through this pandemic. It’s an unsung hero – a really fundamental service.”


A hidden industry

Another problem the data centre industry faces is that it lacks a collective voice that could be heard in high places and tell opinion formers and policymakers about its importance, Palmer says, referring to the high public profiles of those who lead companies that rely on data centres and telecoms infrastructure.

“Have a peer down the wires. Look at the cool new stuff in the cloud. Do people know where that is?” he asks. The ICT industry provides “a stable career that allows you to move around the world”, says Palmer. “There are cross-border projects.”

Torrey Searles is VP of talent at T5 Data Centers, which operates across the United States. He shares the concern over staffing in the industry.

“There’s a problem,” he says. “The workforce is, in large proportion, in the last few years before retirement. And there’s a shortage of newer people in the workforce. It’s a battle we’re having.”

Searles says we are now “in a workforce-driven economy, where there are more jobs than people”, so those people can now negotiate their salaries and benefits.

T5 employs about 500 people. At one point, it was hiring 200 people a year, which meant Searles and his colleagues had to sift through “10 times that amount” of applicants. Four or five years ago, they would employ about 60% of applicants, but “now it’s 20% of people who apply”.

Searles says that T5 encountered the problem of ageing staff itself four years ago as its managers “were getting to the point where they were retiring”.

Fortunately, Searles says, T5 is “small enough to be nimble” and “saw the need to build a training programme”.

Now it is working with colleges in the areas where it operates, such as Atlanta, Portland and Silicon Valley. “While students don’t know about our industry, there are a lot of industries they do know about,” he says.

Another challenge T5 faces is that while more people are learning about the functions of data centres, Searles says that “people don’t know what it takes to be qualified” to work in the industry.

Searles, himself a graduate of the West Point Military Academy, says T5 recruits veterans as they can possess some of the attitudes and experience the company seeks in its staff.

“A nuclear sub is like a floating data centre,” he explains, as submariners do “a job that is pretty repetitive and needs discipline”, yet requires them to “maintain a level of excellence”.

However, he confesses that hiring older people is not always an option, as once someone has worked for more than 10 years outside the industry, “retraining is less successful”.

That data centres are well distributed around the economy is useful, as potential candidates are likely to find them in their neighbourhoods – unlike the aircraft or electronics industries, which tend to be clustered in a handful of locations.

The problem with recruiting staff, says Nigel Bayliff, CEO of Aqua Comms, is that “what we used to call the ‘telecoms industry’ isn’t there any more”.

“There isn’t such a thing as ‘telecoms’. It’s all about connectivity, linking eyeballs to eyeballs and earholes to earholes,” he laments. Essentially, “it’s robots talking to each other”, he says.

Aqua Comms, the subsea operator that is owned by the infrastructure investor Digital 9, also has unique challenges when looking to recruit young people, Bayliff says.

“We’re trying to find graduates that aren’t normal,” says Bayliff, meaning that the Aqua Comms needs engineers who can handle high voltages – the power connections along subsea cables runs at 18.5kV, he says – and the demanding installations at landing stations.

Aqua Comms pursues a policy of “progressive recruitment”, he explains, employing people during their summer holidays “to see if they understand the job”. The company is “trying to do that in Ireland”, especially along the west coast where its AEC-1 cable from the US terminates.

This concept is not a new one. Once, Cable & Wireless ran its own engineering college at Porthcurno, Cornwall, in south-west England, alongside the landing sites of many of its cables. According to the Facebook group of what’s now Porthcurno’s Museum of Global Communications, the village “welcomed students from all over the world, with courses that included radio, satellite and telephone engineering, as telegraphy became steadily obsolete. In 1984 the college had 614 students, with around 70% from overseas”. But in 1993, Cable & Wireless moved the college to Coventry, in the English Midlands.

But Bayliff accepts that his company finds recruiting hard, because “our part of the industry is pretty invisible. We don’t shout about the industry. It’s under the sea and we hope no one will notice. And data centres are becoming even more remote.”

The industry needs “good, bright, young people”, says Bayliff. “We need people who’ve lived their entire lives in this computing society, when the first thing they did was coding. At conferences you’re blinded by the light on bald pates. There are vey few young, hirsute people.”


Get ’em early

Getting young people into the industry is “a much bigger problem than people are paying attention to”, says Andrew Schaap, CEO of Aligned Data Centers in Dallas. “We’re seeing a real shortfall,” he warns.

Schaap, who sits on the board of the Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, says this should be addressed during early years education. That means from kindergarten to sixth grade – ages 11-12 – in the US. “And it should go on through high school and college.”

Unfortunately, data centres “have been overlooked by higher education”, says Schaap, and “we’re probably not doing a good job of self-promotion”. This means that when people think of high-tech jobs, “they want to go and work for Intel”.

The challenge, according to Schaap, is that “data centre clients want security by obscurity” and “staying under the radar is important for our customers”.

“It’s an interesting conundrum,” he says. “But talent is few and far between.” Schaap says he wants to bring college students – that is “folks at early college age, from 17 or 18” up to their late 20s – into Aligned Data Centers as interns every quarter. In his view, it does not particularly matter what a student is studying, whether it is “media relations, Aztec culture, and so on”, but that they will go on to tell their peers about working in data centres.

The bigger challenge comes after hiring a newcomer to the industry, Schaap believes, because once “you train them, you’ve got to retain them”. As working in data centres is well compensated, Schaap believes that recruits moving from them to Facebook or Microsoft “is a recipe for wage inflation” and will mean the industry “is not getting to the root of the problem” it faces.