Stack Infrastructure

Solving the data centre talent crisis: data centre operations as a college course

28 January 2021 | Thomas Ciccone

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Thomas Ciccone

Blog Author | Guest contributor

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Thomas Ciccone, vice president, critical operations, at Stack Infrastructure makes the case for data center operations as a college-level study programme, and explains the steps that could be taken to make it a reality

There hasn’t been enough discussion about introducing data centre education to community colleges and trade schools as a great way to solve our industry’s growing talent gap. Over the years a combination of narrowly focused recruiting efforts, poor transparency across the industry, and even worse promotion of how great it can be to work in data centres has led us to a place where there simply aren’t enough qualified employees to go around.

Incorporating a data centre education into college curriculum is a cost-effective option for closing the talent gap because instead of relying on third party partners, upskilling existing workers, or poaching employees from direct competitors, we’ll be able to grow new workers who are ready for a career as data centre professionals.

But like all good and worthy ideas, implementing this one isn’t without its challenges. So, let’s take a look at what needs to happen in order to start making it a reality.

Meet the people where they live

Like residential real estate, data centres are all about location, location, location. The buildings are generally located close to internet exchanges in network-dense areas, but also happen to be heavily populated by businesses.

It also means that those areas tend to be more densely populated with people who don’t already work in or for a data centre and represent an untapped market of potential employees, provided we can create opportunities for them to develop the skills and knowledge required to obtain a job in one.

The good news is that the geographic targets for building data centre education programs are somewhat limited. Northern Virginia, for example, is the centre of the data centre universe, with more facilities than anywhere else in the country, if not the world. It makes more sense to focus time and attention on incorporating education programs here or in other areas like Silicon Valley, Chicago, Portland, and Denver which are rapidly becoming data centre hubs, than it does in places like Nebraska, Kansas, or the Dakotas.

Still, we have to be strategic about our outreach efforts and communication with these communities to get them interested and excited about this kind of career. These areas are often more diverse in ethnicity and socioeconomic background, in which not everyone has the same resources or opportunities for conventional education programs. 

That means we’ll need to develop a communications programme aimed at local high schools and private STEM programmes to help administrators incorporate messaging about an exciting new career option into their career counseling services and help students better visualise what a future in as a data centre employee could entail.

Key steps to creating and sustaining a program

Beyond merely creating a market for data centre programs within community colleges and trade schools, there are also practical factors for building and sustaining a data centre operations program to take into account.

Building suitable data centre lab environments

Data centres are marvels of electrical and mechanical engineering, which require extensive training and hands-on experience. So, it’s essential to get students working in a real-life environment during their training which will require building and managing a data centre “lab” to replicate the experience.

Though this isn’t particularly challenging, it’s also not fast or cheap. Schools would need to seek partnerships with a local data centre or centres to acquire the equipment and then find a third-party project manager to oversee it. They might also need (with the help of their data centre partners) to collaborate with local or state governments to line up grants or other funding to help with the costs.

Assembling a teaching team

From there, the next step is to find people who can actually teach the curricula. Since there's a lot more money to be made working in data centres than teaching kids about it, it can be a hard sale to get data centre professionals to give up their time and expertise when there’s no direct benefit to them.

We’ll need to get creative with the ways we recruit teachers, particularly emphasising the opportunity to elevate their personal brand or profile within the data centre community as well as to play on concerns about a legacy that some experienced professionals might find important. There’s no better way to accomplish both than by taking the opportunity to shape the minds and futures of the younger generation in their area.

Importantly, instructors wouldn’t need to become full-time teachers. We can offer them the chance to give guest lectures, or single courses that might take 20 hours of teaching time over a semester.

Refine and expand the curriculum

All careers are multifaceted and working in a data centre is no different. While data centres are tech-heavy operations, they also need business leaders, marketers, salespeople, and finance and accounting professionals.

Introducing real data centre education into colleges and trade schools means we’ll need to incorporate curriculum beyond just technology-related material. We should aim to include leadership training and development, as well as survey courses for other functional areas of the operation.

But unlike the four-year university model, where students have to get new books every year that cost thousands of dollars, this program would be delivered via lower-cost community colleges and feature digital content — funded by government programs and private donations — that would be either very low-cost or free to students, enabling more students from more diverse backgrounds to engage with minimal barriers.

Promotion to create an eager pool of learners

The final step in the process is to fill the classes with eager students. Many students and families in lower-income areas might not be aware of how lucrative data centre positions — even entry level ones — can be.

Data centres can greatly improve the chances of these programs gaining adoption across campuses by actively participating in high school and college career days, helping students put a human face on those monolithic buildings they see on the side of the highway. Getting out into the community, engaging with students, their friends and families helps break down the air of mystery of data centres that we’ve created for ourselves over the years and gives them a peek into a future they never knew was possible for them.

We can also broach dual-enrollment opportunities for high school students, similar to how collegiate-level math and science courses are available to high-achieving high schoolers, to extend the reach of our message and do it earlier in the educational process.

None of this will be easy or necessarily quick. But it’s a viable and reasonable path for generating opportunities for these communities while creating a permanent solution to the staffing crisis we all face.