Survey: Data-center staffing shortage remains challenging

Building public awareness and achieving workforce diversity will help data-center operators contend with skills shortage, says Uptime Institute.

It’s getting harder to find people to design, build and manage data centers.

The sector is facing a staffing crisis, says Andy Lawrence, executive director of research at Uptime Institute, which just released its annual data-center survey. “We all know that that the data-center skills shortage is real. I think what we’re seeing in this data is that it’s getting a little worse,” Lawrence says.

This year, 61 percent of respondents said they've had significant difficulty retaining or recruiting staff, up from 55 percent last year.

“It’s ever present,” says Chris Brown, CTO of Uptime Institute, of the people problem. Skills that are in short supply range from facility staff to IT to security operations teams. Outreach is needed, he says. The industry is going to have to work harder to increase recruiting efforts and spread the word about its high-growth prospects. “In the data-center industry, we really haven’t marketed out to the society at large, who we are, what we are, how important we are, what careers are available, and that those careers are here to stay,” Brown says.

“The data-center industry is largely invisible," agrees Rhonda Ascierto, vice president of research at Uptime Institute. People don’t often realize that when systems and applications are running in the cloud, there’s a physical infrastructure that makes it possible. “There’s a very low awareness of that, generally speaking, across the general population,” Ascierto says. Meanwhile, unemployment rates range from 3 percent to 5.5 percent in countries that host the most data centers; competition for talent will be intense, globally, for the foreseeable future, she says.

Contributing to the staffing crisis is a lack of workplace diversity. In particular, the Uptime Institute’s research highlights a significant gender imbalance: 25 percent of managers surveyed have no women among their design, build or operations staff, and another 54 percent have 10 percent or fewer women on staff. Only 5 percent of respondents said women represent 50 percent or more of staff.

Yet most respondents don’t seem to think there’s anything deterring women from working where they work. A majority (85 percent) said it’s easy for women to pursue a career in their respective organization’s data center team or department; just 15 percent said it’s difficult.

Referring to the data-center industry as a whole, respondents were less confident about women’s employment prospects: 53 percent said it’s easy for women to pursue a career in data centers, and 47 percent said it’s difficult.

In the big picture, diversity issues could become a threat to business operations. “Study after study shows that a lack of diversity is not just a pipeline issue,” Ascierto says. Lack of diversity also can lead to technical stagnation, generate negative publicity, and potentially contribute to a loss of market share, she says.

“This is a business issue,” she says. “We have an industry that’s struggling to fill open positions – and we have a lot of data on that – and yet, half the workforce isn’t being targeted.”

There are initiatives underway, particularly among some of the largest data-center operators, to hire outside the traditional staffing routes, Ascierto says. It’s important that efforts to attract a more diverse workforce – to actively recruit not only women but also other underrepresented populations – continue to ramp up across the entire industry, she says.

How AI will impact data-center staffing

Uptime Institute’s research also touched on the anticipated impact of artificial intelligence (AI) on staffing. When asked if they believe AI will reduce data-center operations staffing levels in the next five years, 29 percent of respondents said yes, and 29 percent said no. The remaining 42 percent said yes, but that it will take more than five years for AI to really make an impact on staffing.

Ascierto agrees the impact of AI on staffing will be gradual. Today, most AI is being applied to existing functions and processes in the data center, such as improving real-time alerting. And while AI is beginning to be used in a semi-automated way, humans with domain expertise are required to validate AI-generated recommendations with any level of confidence, Ascierto says.

Meanwhile, data-center growth isn’t going to slow down. In five years time, “AI may not necessarily reduce staffing needs, but it will help the industry keep pace with staffing requirements,” Ascierto says.

Uptime Institute's annual data-center survey covers topics including efficiency, resiliency, workload placement, climate change, staffing, and new technology adoption. The 2019 survey was conducted in March and April of this year, and 1,100 data-center operators responded.

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