As Data Center Development Soars Nationwide, A Problem Looms: Who Will Run The Facilities?
Demand for data center development is as high as ever, but there is one key ingredient holding the industry back: a shortage of qualified talent.
Demand for the specialized staff that builds and manages data centers is outpacing the supply of those workers, according to a report from Uptime Institute, an advisory group focused on digital infrastructure. Globally, staffing needs are expected to grow to 2.3 million full-time workers by 2025, up from 2 million employees in 2019. At the same time, the report cites growing concern that many qualified staffers are due to retire in the next few years, causing an additional surge in demand.
“This is a fast-growing and dynamic industry — and we need people from all backgrounds, all over the world,” Uptime Institute Vice President of Research Rhonda Ascierto said.
The industry’s staffing challenges encompass everything from construction and design needs for new facilities to operations roles in active data centers. One facet of the issue is that many hyperscale facilities — large-scale campuses that host cloud infrastructure and services — are situated in rural areas, raising challenges in recruiting local talent.
“There are a lot of market forces restricting the supply of contractors and labor; the data center industry is an insular community,” Whitney Villalobos, head of industrial, high tech and manufacturing at Turner & Townsend, said in a recent interview with Bisnow. “Upskilling a local force is going to be key going forward.”
Through the life cycle of a data center, staffing needs include roles in business support, strategy, design, construction, engineering, IT hardware, networking, controls and monitoring, and operations. In some smaller data centers, some of those domains may be collapsed into one role. But it isn't unusual for the planning, design, construction and operation of a larger data center to require hundreds of people. In one recent example, Facebook boasted that its Gallatin, Tennessee, data center development will create 1,100 construction jobs in addition to 100 permanent roles once the build is complete.
Data center jobs can come with healthy paychecks and the ability to advance as older, more senior workers retire. A data center critical facilities engineer earns $93K per year in the U.S. on average, according to the Economic Research Institute, which tracks job salaries. A data center manager earns $115K on average, while lower-level technician roles can bank a $60K average salary. Data center construction managers can earn $100K at the lower end, according to public job listings.
According to Uptime, most data center roles will require a university, college or technical trade school degree or, perhaps most critically, equivalent experience. Engineer roles, for example, may also require additional certifications. To prepare the next generation of data center builders and operators, more sector-specific education, as well as on-the-job training, will be critical.
“You’re going to see a lot of skills transfer over the next couple of years, retraining folks that have pretty robust skills and honing new skills,” said Charles McCarthy, vice president of operations in Suffolk Construction’s mission-critical division.
McCarthy noted a number of outreach efforts taking place in the data center industry, such as 7x24 Exchange, an educational forum for mission-critical information infrastructure. The group launched an event called International Data Center Day, which helps to introduce students of all levels to data center opportunities. Many larger data center firms also have their own internal training programs or relationships with colleges and trade schools.
Speaking at an Uptime Institute event last week, Nancy Novak, chief innovation officer at Compass Datacenters, said that meeting staffing demands may require a change in perceptions of data center development, as well as throwing open the door for diverse, nontraditional candidates with transferable skills.
“A lot of it really is about opening up and welcoming people who are diverse in all ways, because the transferable skills you see in other industries are very applicable to construction and to data center work,” Novak said. “It's about changing how you advertise or solicit for the help, [looking at] leadership skills, technical skills, the ability to learn fast and people who are excited to be a part of something like this.”