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6 ways to overcome data center staffing shortages

Retirements, skills gaps and tight budgets are all factors in recent data center staffing shortages. Focus on recruitment, training and other areas to attract more candidates.

Recently, data center admins and managers may have sat on video conferences with executives discussing the economy, budget cuts, rising interest rates and a tight labor market. Meanwhile, those same admins have had open roles for months. Their job postings get little to no interest, or those that do apply just don't seem like they can hack it. Is this you?

Running a data center is a challenging feat, no matter the size. Organizations have had to navigate increasing demands from their data centers and accommodate remote work -- all while they still struggle to find staff for their facilities.

Data center staffing shortages are the product of a variety of forces. Skills shortages, retirement among data center staff and a bleak macroeconomic environment are all contributors to the empty slots on data center payrolls. Organizations must understand the reasons driving staffing shortages to effectively act and hedge against them.

Factors driving data center staffing shortages

Data center staffing shortages are not driven by independent variables. Rather, shortages are the product of various factors.

Data centers continue to grow, and organizations continue to generate more data. At the same time, many data center employees are nearing retirement age, and despite increasing automation, it won't be enough to replace those employees in the near term. Additionally, economic uncertainty, a competitive labor market and data center skills shortages are also factors in staffing issues.

The Uptime Institute's "Global Data Center Survey 2022" estimated that data center staffing requirements will grow from "2.0 million full-time employee equivalents in 2019 to nearly 2.3 million in 2025," and many senior roles will become unfilled.

Chart of age of data center employees' experience

The report also estimates that many data center employees will retire at the same time. This means even more data center jobs in the future will open, and the most experienced in the industry will retire. Those that do replace the retirees may not have all the relevant experience organizations desire.

To add on to the challenges of upcoming staff retirements and lack of available replacements, it's still no secret that organizations and customers demand a lot from data centers, and people will still have to run them. Data creation -- and, by proxy, the need for larger, more capable data centers -- will likely continue to grow by many projections.

Another factor is economic uncertainty. After the COVID-19 pandemic shocked the economy in 2020, the Federal Reserve engaged in quantitative easing and put stimulus into the economy, but heavy inflation followed. To combat this inflation, the Federal Reserve raised the federal funds target rate from nearly 0% in the early part of 2022 to 4.75% to 5% by the end of March 2023, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and those hikes could continue higher.

With cheap capital no longer available, investors and capital allocators now largely want to see profitability. This can tighten budgets, lead to layoffs -- in some sectors, like tech, it already has -- and force companies to do more with less in all areas of the business, including data centers.

Through recruitment efforts, raising awareness about data center career opportunities and lowering barriers to entry, organizations can better position themselves against staffing shortages in the future.

6 ways to manage data center staffing shortages

Given the difficulty in finding and hiring data center staff, organizations must take a proactive approach to fulfill their data center staffing requirements. Through recruitment efforts, raising awareness about data center career opportunities and lowering barriers to entry, organizations can better position themselves against staffing shortages in the future.

1. Build talent pipelines early and often

As employees retire, it is crucial to have a pipeline of talent to replace them. Job seekers often have poor visibility of the sector, according to Uptime's research, so raising awareness of data center careers and jobs can help organizations find candidates.

Organizations have a variety of tools at their disposal to better attract talent and build relationships with potential candidates before the roles are open. Explore avenues like partnering with universities and offering internships, co-ops, job shadowing or mentorship programs. Many universities also host or participate in networking events and careers fairs in their cities or regions. Organizations can set up a table at these events regularly, and they are an accessible way to raise awareness and meet future talent.

Local event management companies, recruiting companies and conference centers may also host these types of events in nearby cities, so research those options as well.

2. Lower barriers to employment and seek transferrable skills

One of the chief complaints of job applicants is the inability to get hired for roles despite having many of the qualifications the organization requires. Organizations that fare the best in a tight job market are the ones that lower their barriers to employment and take a more flexible approach to hiring.

Organizations willing to make concessions on specific experience -- and instead focus on repurposing candidates' transferrable but relevant skills -- are in a better position to fill jobs. Look for skills such as architectural design, construction, engineering backgrounds, hardware maintenance and critical thinking. Applicants who have previously worked in roles where they had to maintain systems and implement them efficiently can, with the right training, use those experiences to inform decisions in the data center.

3. Focus more on training and employee development

When it's difficult to find talent who can walk in the door and do the job, training and development are essential. Develop training programs and succession plans for roles in the data center. Look toward current experienced employees to help develop those programs to prepare for staff turnover, retirements or new roles.

Chart of statistics about data center staffing issues

Organizations that find candidates who may need some training can also look toward certifications to supplement on-the-job training. If an organization uses a certain vendor, research potential certifications that vendor offers, and allocate money and resources to get new hires certified. Other data center certifications and vendor-neutral certifications are also available.

4. Be transparent and set expectations for candidates

After candidates research the organization and invest time doing interviews, they don't want to wait until the offer letter to find out compensation is less than they expected, the responsibilities are not what they thought or the benefits are not what they require. When hiring data center employees, especially those coming in with transferrable skills, be sure to make it clear what is required for the role.

To encourage applicants, organizations can focus on being transparent in what the role entails and what candidates can expect when they apply or are recruited. Work with key stakeholders, hiring managers and HR departments to best ensure job descriptions are an accurate and comprehensive reflection of the responsibilities and the role. This means detailed job descriptions; details about whether the role is on-site, hybrid or remote; and, possibly, salary and benefits info.

Listing salary and benefits info is a controversial issue for organizations of all sizes, but it does matter. For example, in a LinkedIn study from late 2022, 91% of U.S.-based respondents said that including salary ranges in a job post would affect their decision to apply, and 82% said they would see the company more favorably if the role listed it. Weigh the pros and cons of including this information.

5. Emphasize diversity and inclusion to attract more candidates

Many candidates are interested in working for organizations that foster diversity in thought and in demographics. Uptime's research found that, in data centers, "demographic imbalances can deter some candidates from pursuing a career in the data center sector." For example, in those surveyed by the Uptime Institute, over 75% of respondents reported they employed 10% women or less; 20% of the respondents said they did not employ any women at all. Use diversity hiring best practices in recruitment efforts, and make them known to encourage diverse candidates to apply.

6. Automate or use AI where possible and explore areas for later investment

Automation and AI can help alleviate some of the pain points of not having enough data center staff, but it may be some time before AI's role in the data center is defined more clearly. The Uptime Institute's research indicated many organizations do not expect automation and AI to effectively reduce staff needs in the near term.

Even though it may not be for some time, begin researching ways to incorporate AI and automation into data center operations to reduce staffing needs now and in the future. Some ways data centers use AI now are in areas like data center infrastructure management, cooling systems and server optimization.

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