DCD Opinions: By investing in talent today, we will ensure sustainable data center delivery tomorrow

Few industries have grown over the past 18 months quite like the data center sector. Now, though, growth could be constrained by a lack of suitable talent.

DCD Opinions speak to Fergus Barry, Kirby Group Engineering.

As we face the latter half of 2021 and a post-COVID re-emergence of the world’s economies, the reality is that there has been more hyperscale data center building activity in the last year than at any time in history. We have seen many large-scale projects delivered, but exponential data demand shows little sign of abating.
As the value of, and demand for, data increases in our digital world, the market for leading-edge sustainable and super-efficient data centers will grow. To meet this demand, we will need resources and, undoubtedly, the most important supply factor here will be talent. Therefore, finding, attracting, selecting, growing, and retaining talent will become crucial for companies to secure the future of our industry. Given current projections, the current demand for talent will likely outstrip the readily identifiable traditional sources of supply.

When there is a ‘war for talent’, in line with the laws of economics it becomes more expensive.

Consequently, our limiting factor in 2021 and into the foreseeable future will be people; we face an apparent shortage of experience as an industry. Ironically, in the data space, it is talent that is in short supply, with the associated potential of rising costs looming on the horizon.

Given that we are facing a sectoral skills shortage over the coming years, we must act now to develop the teams that can design and build the DCs of the future, embracing leading-edge thought and practices in the process.

To put it another way, as an industry, we need to focus a lot of our time, effort, and energy on finding, attracting, growing, and retaining talent.

As we stand in 2021 and gaze into our crystal ball, one thing we can be confident of is that there will be a revolution, as well as an evolution, in construction practices and technologies. These key changes will require a certain type of talent, and a certain type of learning and development to build and deliver the data centers of the future.

So, developing this core resource is where our focus must now be.

The greatest threat to growth in our industry is simply the lack of adequately trained people

We must engage with our people and develop them to keep pace with emerging technology and practices, developing top-tier teams to deliver on the emerging market demands.

It’s something fundamental to the core values at our company, Kirby Group Engineering, where we recently announced 300 new jobs, 100 of which will assimilate into Kirby’s successful Apprenticeship Scheme and Graduate Engineering Programme. We have also invested heavily in individual development planning, a learning academy, online learning resources and strong networked relationships with our Third and Fourth Level Learning Institution Partners.

Our crucial challenge and focus is to invest in future-proofing and developing our people. This is about priority development initiatives in a culture that is focused on learning and development. It requires an agile and focused ‘learning organisation’.

This challenge is our opportunity to become even better.

The European Commission Labour Shortages and Surpluses Report 2019 made it clear that construction and engineering skills were ranked as two of the most in-demand skills in the European Union.

Meanwhile, the 2020 Global Engineering Capability Review reported on the emerging skills gap in engineering, concluding that the lack of engineering talent will likely affect areas such as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals in terms of clean energy, sustainable cities, and climate action.

XHEAD: Growth requires skilled people

Ultimately, as an industry, we need to be growing and attractive to get the best people; this is certainly the case in the data center world. If, as an industry, we miss the opportunity to invest in people (hiring and growing), we will put at risk a healthy talent pipeline that is mission-critical to data center delivery in the new post-Covid landscape.

What we need to do is continue the good work already started in developing strong relationships with educational institutions and developing programmes fit for purpose. Overall, educational programs need to be specifically aligned with our industry’s new and emerging requirements. A coordinated approach in policy making by governments, educators, and engineering companies would be of great benefit.

There has been more hyperscale data center building activity in the last year than at any time in history

We can ensure a sustainable and effective industry-focused workforce by refocusing efforts to create a more streamlined talent acquisition, nurturing and development process.

We also have the challenge of raising awareness of the great work done, and opportunities in, this industry in general and the opportunities offered to engineering graduates. We are fortunate that this leading-edge industry has the responsibility to build the digital infrastructure for our new digital world. We are essentially engineering and building the ‘digital cathedrals’ of the 21st century. However, according to Engineering UK’s report, there was a widespread lack of awareness about engineering among teens, with 47 percent of 11-to-19 year olds saying that they knew little or nothing about what engineers actually do.

The greatest threat to growth in our industry is simply the lack of adequately trained people.

Ireland provides an interesting example. It has a substantial pharmaceutical base and expertise in engineering and construction that has been there since the 1960s and 1970s. Talent from that critical mass of engineering DNA has in many cases evolved to become leaders in data center construction. Through that, colleges and the education system have developed talent for that sphere.

We need to look wider, geographically, to identify the brightest and most highly qualified engineers

However, the great thing about talent is that it can learn and change. So, we are working now on critical programmes that re-orient engineers from other backgrounds and give them the skills and opportunities to thrive in the engineering and construction of data centers.

According to Engineers Ireland’s annual report: assessing engineering companies’ hiring plans for the year ahead, respondents were asked whether their organisation plans to recruit engineers in 2021. The sample was restricted to directors, managers, and associates. Overall, 79% of these respondents said that their organisation plans to recruit engineers in 2021.

Conversely, the body also reported that almost all engineering employers surveyed consider a shortage of experienced engineers a barrier to growth. Nevertheless, at the same time, almost half expect this situation to worsen in the future. So, we must take a more positive and proactive approach to this and source, hire, and develop our talent for our future needs. It just requires focus and an open mindset.

We need to look wider, geographically, to identify the brightest and most highly qualified engineers across our planet in order to supplement our talent pools; they will require support and nurturing, but bring-in many unique talents. This challenge will increase our diversity, inclusion opportunities and standards.

Once we value and invest in our people positively and sustainably, we will continue to build a world-class experience pool that is fit to meet the future needs of our business.

As Albert Einstein once said, “The only source of knowledge is experience.” As we face reshaping a post-Covid world, our diverse experience will be our strength and our knowledge base well into the future, and our people and their achievements will be our legacy.

Fergus Barry, Director and Group Head of Human Resources
Fergus Barry, Director and Group Head of Human Resources
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