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'A Big Concern': Data Center Industry's Efforts To Ease Labor Woes Have Yet To Bear Fruit

Despite years of efforts aimed at building a talent pipeline, data centers are still struggling to attract the workers needed to sustain the industry’s rapid growth. 


Severe staffing shortages continue to be a top concern for data center operators and developers, a survey released last week from industry think tank Uptime Institute shows. Although data center firms, industry groups and even some local governments have targeted resources toward expanding the pool of qualified workers, the data shows that, for the most part, these efforts have yet to bear fruit. 

Data center providers have performed particularly poorly when it comes to recruiting and hiring women, who account for just 8% of the data center workforce.

In a sector where growth is only expected to accelerate in the months ahead to meet a wave of artificial intelligence-driven demand, experts say data center firms need to be actively working to make the industry's careers appealing and accessible to a wider range of workers. They say this has taken on increased urgency as the data center talent pipeline is becoming dangerously close to running dry. 

“This has been challenging the data center industry for about a decade and has been escalating in recent years,” said Jacqueline Davis, a research analyst for Uptime Institute Intelligence who co-authored the survey report. “It may be stabilizing, but the story is still largely of very immature, if any, talent pipelines.”

According to Uptime Institute’s survey, a full 50% of data center managers are having difficulty finding qualified candidates for open jobs.

Even operators who aren’t actively hiring indicate that the industry’s labor woes are top of mind, with 71% of respondents reporting being at least somewhat worried about a lack of qualified staff. That is more than expressed the same level of concern over any other issue facing the industry, from energy efficiency to supply chain problems. 

While workforce constraints abound across every level of the data center industry, on-site operations and construction roles remain the primary labor supply pinch point. Operators and builders report having the most trouble finding candidates for entry-level positions running and maintaining a data center's critical systems. Challenging positions for hiring also include electricians, mechanical technicians and other blue-collar trades that require specific training or experience in data centers or other mission critical facilities.  

These are skilled trades, but they don't generally require four-year degrees, yet a diminished talent pipeline is leaving facilities managers short-staffed and making it increasingly difficult for data center builders to meet development timelines.  

“It’s not just mechanical engineers, we’re talking about pipe fitters,” said Danielle Rossi, global director for mission critical cooling at HVAC contractor Trane Commercial, speaking at Bisnow’s DICE East event in May. “There’s a need for a certain amount of people that have trade skillsets in specific areas, especially on large projects. We might only have a few people who can do these things, but we need more. That’s a big concern.” 

While many operators have sought to bridge these talent gaps by recruiting mid-career professionals with transferable skills from other industries, there have also been significant efforts to establish a pipeline for entry-level talent. 

Data center trade groups and major operators have partnered with local governments in key data center markets like Loudoun County to establish industry-specific training programs in local schools and community colleges. Firms like T5 Data Centers have also made efforts to put data center careers on students’ radar before they enter the workforce.

“Constraints on personnel is a major factor, so as a developer we’re investing in high schools and getting folks into the trades,” said Brad Gover, T5’s director of construction, speaking at DICE East. “We’re encouraging it at a very early level, going from high school to college.”

T5 Director of Construction Brad Gover speaking at DICE East

Yet on an industry-wide level, these efforts have yet to produce a significant influx of talent into data centers. Indeed, Uptime’s data shows that data center firms are having the hardest time filling exactly the kind of operations roles these pipelines are intended to fill.

As a result, Gover and other industry leaders say they have to invest heavily in retaining and upskilling the talent that they are able to attract. This means devoting significant resources to developing training and career development pathways to keep workers in the industry. 

“There’s such a need that we’re actually absorbing the costs for interns to travel to our development sites,” Gover said. “The training and development program that we have is extremely immersive — it’s on the job and it's sending people to some of the best educational institutions in the world when it comes to data centers. It's an end-to-end program, and it's working.”

While efforts to expand the pipeline of entry-level workers have yielded few tangible results, the industry’s failure to recruit and hire women in data center operations, building or design roles is particularly striking. Data center operations continues to be a boys club, with women accounting for just 8% of the workforce, according to Uptime. That’s a lower figure than many similar industries, which Uptime’s Davis said indicates that the gender gap is not simply because women aren’t interested in the field. 

“There’s a common narrative that women simply aren’t attracted to physically demanding work, but at least in the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, this places the data center industry behind agriculture, mining, manufacturing and construction,” Davis said.  “It seems like it’s not a matter of job tasks but comes down to our efforts at building these talent pipelines. “

Davis said there needs to be more active effort across the data center industry focused specifically on bringing women into these roles. Without such proactive initiatives, Davis said, qualified female candidates will continue to steer clear of a sector they may not see as a good cultural fit. That is a lost opportunity the labor-starved data center industry can ill afford.

“Companies should attempt to attract more women because if they don’t, they're potentially overlooking a significant pool of qualified candidates, and this is likely going to require devoting resources, time and money specifically toward this,” Davis said. “If a female job applicant sees just how few women there are are and how few examples of success there are that look like her, if she's going by the numbers, she may not conclude that it's a safe, welcoming and rewarding career even as the industry tries to attract more talent from universities, trade schools and career changers.”