Bridging the Skills Gap in the Data Centre Industry: Insights from a Recent Panel Discussion

Recently, I had the pleasure of participating in a compelling panel discussion at Datacloud Global Congress in Cannes, where industry leaders came together to tackle the pressing challenges and transformative opportunities within the data centre sector. As the CEO of Global Commissioning, a company specialising in commissioning management consultancy within the data centre industry, I am keenly aware of the critical role our industry plays in supporting global technology infrastructure. However, we face a significant challenge: a growing skills gap that threatens to impede our progress and innovation.

During the panel discussion, alongside Mark Flanagan from Kirby Group Engineering and Michillay Brown from STACK Infrastructure, we delved into several key questions. Here’s a recap of the insights I shared during the Q&A session.

The Biggest Challenges We Are Currently Facing As An Industry?

Visa and Tax Issues
Visa and tax issues are often the silent project killers in our industry, directly affecting the availability of skilled labour. Fortunately, at Global Commissioning, we are fully compliant with all visa and tax regulations. However, I know projects (that Global are not involved in) where teams operate without proper visas or fail to pay local taxes. This practice poses a significant risk to our industry’s skill set and future stability.

We need to invest properly in our staff and ensure they are working within legal frameworks to ensure the sustainability of our workforce is maintained. Non-compliance can lead to severe legal repercussions, project delays, and a tarnished reputation. More critically, it can exacerbate the skills gap by driving away talented professionals seeking stable and legally compliant employment.

As an industry, we must prioritise legal compliance and invest in our workforce to maintain a robust talent pool. Ensuring that all team members are properly documented and tax-compliant is not just a legal obligation but a crucial step in safeguarding the future of our industry and mitigating the risk of an even larger skills gap.

Skill Mismatch 
One of the most pressing issues we discussed is the skill mismatch. The need for specific skills grows as our technology evolves—think advancements in AI, edge computing, and cloud infrastructure. Unfortunately, current workforces often lack these emerging technical skills crucial for managing and operating modern data centres effectively. This mismatch hampers our capacity to innovate and scale operations efficiently. We must invest in targeted training programs that address these gaps and are adaptive to future technological developments.

Another significant challenge is the labour skills gap on construction sites. As data centres become more complex, the construction processes require highly specialised skills. The need for more skilled labour in construction means that projects can avoid delays and quality issues. Bridging this gap requires targeted training and certification programs for construction workers, ensuring they possess the necessary skills to handle advanced data centre builds. By focusing on both technical and practical training, we can improve the quality and efficiency of construction projects, ultimately supporting the overall growth and reliability of the data centre industry.

High Workload 
The shortage of adequately skilled professionals has a ripple effect across our projects. With a limited workforce possessing the necessary skills, the burden on our current employees intensifies. This heightened workload can lead to burnout and compromise both the quality of work and adherence to project timelines. We must expand our hiring criteria and enhance our support and resources to ensure our teams remain sustainable and our projects aren’t jeopardised by workforce limitations.

Perception Issues 
Another significant hurdle is the pervasive stigma about the transferability of skills from other industries, such as oil and gas, into our sector. Many foundational skills in project management, systems operations, safety protocols, and process management are highly transferable. Mechanical, Electrical, and Plumbing (MEP) processes are similar across industries. Yet, there’s a misconception that previous industrial experience doesn’t equip one for a career in data centres. We need to change this narrative. By showcasing success stories and clearly defining pathways for skill adaptation and enhancement, we can widen our talent pool and ease the transition for many skilled workers seeking new opportunities in our rapidly growing industry.

What Are the Different Companies Doing to Bridge the Skills Gap?

Bridging the Skills Gap with Global Academy

In response to the critical skills gap, Global Commissioning are currently launching the ‘Global Academy’. This will allow us to level up all of our staff, including all new starts that may be transferring from different transferable industries to allow us to ensure that all of our staff are fully equipped with the tools needed to deliver to our high standard.

Insights and 9 box grid 

We have also implemented an employee insights initiative alongside the 9-box grid strategy to understand our workforce’s capabilities comprehensively. This approach enables us to tailor specific training programs to meet individual needs. By using insights profiling, we can identify the different types of individuals within our team—leaders, helpers, drivers, etc.—which helps us understand their unique strengths and areas for development. For instance, someone may be highly technical but not a natural leader, and that’s perfectly fine; we can focus on enhancing their leadership skills if needed.

Similarly, the 9-box grid strategy allows us to assess employees based on their current performance and potential, highlighting areas for improvement and upskilling where necessary. This systematic approach ensures that our training efforts are efficient and targeted, helping us to fully equip our employees, leverage their strengths, and provide support in areas where they may need development. By doing so, we can optimise our workforce’s overall effectiveness and contribute to their professional growth.

Mentorship and Internships 
Mentorship and internships are vital components of our strategy to cultivate new talent and ensure a smooth transition into the data center environment. We actively recruit promising young professionals from university fairs and other academic events, bringing in fresh talent eager to learn and grow. Through our mentorship programs, seasoned professionals guide these newcomers, sharing critical insights and experiences that only come from years in the field. This one-on-one coaching bridges the theoretical knowledge gained through formal education with the practical demands of data center management.

Additionally, our internship programs offer hands-on experience in a real-world setting, allowing interns to apply their learning, observe day-to-day operations, and understand the industry’s nuances. These programs not only bolster our workforce but also ensure that new entrants are well-prepared and aligned with our operational needs and culture.

What Could the Individual Players Do (That They Have Not Done Before) to Be More Successful in Bridging the Skills Gap?

Collaborative Cross-Training Workshops 
Companies can initiate cross-training workshops where experts from different fields, such as electrical, mechanical, BMS, life safety, collaborate to teach each other the fundamentals of their respective domains. These workshops promote mutual understanding and appreciation of each role’s impact on the larger ecosystem and foster a multidisciplinary skill set among the workforce. This approach can rapidly equip employees with a broader range of skills relevant to the evolving demands of data centres.

AI-Driven Skills Analysis and Customised Learning Paths 
Implement an AI-driven system to analyse the skills of current employees and identify precise gaps that align with future needs. This technology can then create customised learning paths for each employee, combining online modules, in-person workshops, and practical on-the-job training. Such targeted education ensures efficient learning and directly contributes to the individual’s performance and the organisation’s success.

Industry-Academia Research Partnerships 
Establish long-term partnerships with universities and research institutions to work on joint projects and studies directly relevant to the challenges faced by the data centre industry. These partnerships could lead to developing cutting-edge solutions and offer students and professionals firsthand experience through research that directly impacts the industry. This not only keeps the curriculum up-to-date but also prepares students to be industry-ready upon graduation.

Global Talent Exchange Programs 
Create global talent exchange programs that allow employees to work in different countries and cultural settings within other data centres. Such programs can be instrumental in spreading best practices and innovative solutions across the global landscape while offering workers a broadened perspective that enhances their problem-solving capabilities and understanding of different market dynamics.

Enhanced Career Transition Programs 
Develop comprehensive career transition programs tailored specifically for individuals looking to enter the data centre industry from completely different sectors. These programs would offer a combination of intensive training, real-life case studies, and mentorship, easing the transition and making it a more attractive option for mid-career professionals seeking new opportunities.

What Could We as an Industry Do to Recruit and Develop the Talent Needed for the Data Centre Industry to Succeed in the Future?

Public Awareness Campaigns 
As an industry, we need to elevate the visibility and attractiveness of data centres through concerted public awareness campaigns. We should highlight the critical role data centres play in supporting global technology infrastructure, from powering social media platforms to enabling cloud storage and processing vast amounts of data for businesses. These campaigns can showcase our field’s exciting technological challenges and innovations, appealing to a younger audience and positioning data centres as a cornerstone of modern technological advancement. By partnering with media outlets, social platforms, and influencers, we can reach a broad audience and spark interest in data centre careers.

Industry-Wide Skills Framework 
Develop a comprehensive, industry-wide skills framework that outlines the essential competencies and technical skills required in data centres. This framework can serve as a guide for educational institutions, training providers, and companies to ensure consistency and high standards across the board. By defining clear career pathways and progression opportunities, we can make the data centre industry more structured and appealing to potential entrants.

How Can We Make Young People Eager to Start Working in the Data Centre Industry? How Can We Make Experienced People Shift from Other Industries into the DC Industry?

Tech-Driven Engagement 
Use technology competitions to attract tech-savvy youth. These events can showcase the innovative and impactful work done in data centres, sparking interest and enthusiasm among younger generations.

Career Transition Incentives 
Offer financial incentives or career transition support to experienced professionals looking to enter the data centre industry from other fields. By providing training scholarships, relocation assistance, or signing bonuses, we can make the transition more attractive and feasible for mid-career professionals seeking new opportunities.

Are There Opportunities Around for Recruiting Trained Personnel from Other Industries That May Be in a Different Development Cycle Than the DC Industry?

There are significant opportunities for recruiting trained personnel from industries experiencing different development cycles. Sectors such as Oil and Gas, telecommunications, Pharma, and even aerospace offer a wealth of talent with skills highly applicable to data centres. These industries often use advanced technologies, project management techniques, and have rigorous safety and efficiency standards that align well with our needs.

To tap into this potential, we should:

  1. Develop targeted recruitment campaigns specifically tailored to attract professionals from these sectors.
  2. Create bridging programs that offer specific training tailored to transitioning these skilled workers into our field.
  3. Forge partnerships with companies in industries that are downsizing or evolving to facilitate smoother transitions for their workforce into data centre roles.

How can we work together in competition for the common good of the industry?

Joint Ventures

Collaborative Training Centres 
Promote joint ventures between companies to establish shared training centres. These centres could focus on providing state-of-the-art training facilities that are cost-prohibitive for individual companies to develop alone. By pooling resources, companies can offer comprehensive hands-on training that reflects the real-world complexities of data centre management and operations.

Cross-Industry Partnerships for Technology Development 
Facilitate joint ventures with technology providers outside the traditional data centre sector, such as AI and machine learning businesses. These partnerships can develop new technologies and training programs that specifically address the unique needs of data centre operations, preparing workers for future demands.

Regional Talent Development Alliances 
Form regional alliances with local governments and educational institutions to focus on creating localised talent pools. These joint ventures can align the training and development initiatives with the specific needs of the region’s data centres, improving employment opportunities and economic growth locally.

Shared Knowledge Platforms

Interactive Online Forums and Workshops 
Establish a digital platform that hosts live forums, workshops, and webinars led by industry experts. This platform could facilitate real-time interaction, problem-solving sessions, and peer-to-peer mentoring, helping to spread innovative ideas and practical solutions across the industry.

Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) Labs 
Create a shared online platform that offers VR and AR simulations for training. These virtual labs could simulate various data centre scenarios—from routine operations to crisis management—allowing employees from different companies to gain valuable experience in a risk-free environment.

Open-Source Resource Repository 
Develop an open-source platform where companies can share tools, software, system designs, and other resources that industry players can access and utilise. This could greatly reduce duplication of effort and foster innovation through the sharing of best practices and successful strategies.

By addressing these critical questions and implementing the proposed strategies, we can effectively bridge the skills gap in the data centre industry, ensuring that we remain at the forefront of technological innovation and operational excellence. This commitment to targeted training programs, enhanced mentorship, and cross-industry collaboration will not only fill current gaps but also future-proof our workforce against emerging technological demands.

As we continue to grow and evolve, we must commit to collaborative action and proactive solutions that will shape the future of our industry. This is not a challenge any one company can solve alone. It requires a concerted effort from all stakeholders across the industry.

Please reach out if your business is interested in cooperating on initiatives such as joint training programs, knowledge-sharing platforms, or any other collaborative efforts to bridge the skills gap. Together, we can create a more robust, skilled, and resilient workforce that can meet the demands of our rapidly advancing industry.

Let us unite our efforts to ensure that the data centre industry keeps pace with technological advancements and leads the way in innovation and excellence.

I look forward to exploring potential partnerships and working together to build a stronger future.