Military Veterans Could Solve U.S. Data Center Labor Woes. So, Why Aren't They?
The data center industry is learning that while military veterans may seem like the answer to its labor woes, actually hiring them will require more than lip service.
With data centers facing a growing labor shortage, industry leaders are increasingly pointing to the military as an important source of much-needed operations staff. But industry leaders focused on building a talent pipeline of recent veterans say few data center operators are effectively tapping into this resource.
With little understanding of the relevant skills developed through military experience and paltry investment in training and career development programs, they say the industry as a whole is failing to cultivate a talent pool that brings more value to the industry than simply filling in the labor supply gap.
“We’ve been talking about the personnel shortage in our industry for years now, but it’s not a magic formula,” said Lee Kirby, founder and chairman of Salute Mission Critical, a Michigan-based company that manages data center operations globally for providers like Digital Realty, EdgeConneX and Yondr with a workforce composed predominantly of veterans.
“You’ve got to invest in the training, and you’ve got to hire from what is a unique talent pool that’s rich in skills that you may not fully comprehend yet beyond a specific specialty.”
Boilerplate overtures about hiring veterans are ubiquitous throughout the corporate world. But there is a growing recognition that many former service members are a particularly good fit for the mission-critical operation needs of the data center industry — particularly as a shortage of qualified labor for these roles is nearing what many in the data center space see as a crisis point.
Almost half the workers at data centers in the U.S. have been in the industry for 20 years or more, leading to concerns that the scope and scale of the labor shortage could grow if the industry experiences a so-called silver tsunami — meaning, a massive wave of skilled workers could opt for retirement at around the same time.
With few programs for training mission-critical technicians and other roles central to data centers in the civilian world, the military has been an intuitive place for data centers to turn for candidates with relevant experience.
In an industry where operations rely on maintaining power with 100% reliability, divisions like the Navy Nuclear Power program have provided a steady stream of personnel with experience maintaining power systems on aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines — workers who can learn data center operations with little additional training.
The same Uptime Institute study concluded that many industry leaders saw military recruitment not just as part of the solution to the industry labor woes, but the center of it.
“[Those surveyed] recognized that the data center industry needs the discipline, leadership, and flexibility skills of veterans to serve as a foundation on which it can build the next generation of data center operators,” the Uptime report concluded.
Yet in spite of this industry-wide enthusiasm for military recruitment, the labor shortage shows no signs of ebbing, and multiple data center operators who spoke with Bisnow stated they have no specific plans to attract veterans.
Why the disconnect?
Insiders like Salute’s Lee Kirby say it comes down to an unwillingness to recruit or hire military candidates outside of directly applicable programs like the so-called Navy Nukes, the product of a general lack of understanding of the transferable skills successful service members develop that prime them for success in data centers, and an industry-wide inability or unwillingness to train them.
“We have a pool of people who have had thousands of dollars invested into them in training and developing critical thinking, and that’s an ideal recipe for building a workforce,” Kirby said. “When people say they hire veterans, they mean they’re hiring Navy Nukes — they’re pulling from a pool of 2,000 veterans each year that the whole industry’s fighting over and meanwhile 198,000 other veterans are being ignored.”
It’s a point echoed by Anthony Hatzenbuehler, senior vice president of data center operations at colocation provider CoreSite, who came into the data center industry in 2007 after nine years in the Navy’s nuclear power program. Hatzenbuehler has made military recruiting a centerpiece of CoreSite’s workforce development program: Veterans account for around 20% of its overall workforce and almost 30% of its operations staff.
Hatzenbuehler said that individuals who were successful in the armed forces have mastered soft skills like resilience, focus in the face of distractions, teamwork, leadership skills and effective communication that make them well-suited for work in data centers and other mission-critical roles, regardless of their specific area of expertise in the military.
“I’ll at least look at someone from any field that comes out of the military because they have those basics and because they understand personal growth over time,” Hatzenbuehler said. “They’ve gone from recruit nobody to leading maybe 10 people and being responsible for equipment that costs a ton of money in a lot of cases.”
Both Hatzenbuehler and Kirby also point to a lack of understanding by civilian hiring managers as to the transferable skills developed in various military roles.
An Army chef might seem only to be qualified for the foodservice industry, but his job may also have involved being able to repair plumbing, execute flood and fire control procedures, and the ability to plan nutrition and supply logistics for hundreds of people in a combat environment — all relevant to work in a data center or other mission-critical role.
According to Kirby, Salute and companies like CoreSite have demonstrated that identifying these transferable skills has dramatically widened the available talent pool and brought top talent into the industry that would otherwise have been passed over for lack of experience.
“People look at someone who was in the infantry and they think of William Dafoe in Platoon — they don’t realize that 80% of the time he was working on PowerPoint slides or maintaining his vehicle and his weapons systems and his communications gear just like a data center technician would,” Kirby told Bisnow.
The widespread failure to tap into this labor force is a self-inflicted wound for the data center industry, Kirby said. But bringing in veterans without directly relevant experience requires developing training programs and career development pathways — something that has been a significant weakness for many data center operators.
Of all the service members leaving the armed forces in a given year, only around 5% have a skill set that immediately qualifies them for a technical data center job, but 45% had some sort of related experience, according to a Salute survey.
Yet in a survey of data center operators, only 19% of data center employers were willing to cross-train those veterans with related experience. Asked if they would train veterans listed as “unqualified but trainable,” only 1% of employers said yes.
Ironically, building out training and workforce development programs is an area where bringing military knowledge and culture onboard can create a cycle of success, experts say. If there is one thing the military does well, it builds systems to quickly onboard and train people, evaluate their performance and identify and promote those with leadership ability. Both Salute and CoreSite and Salute have built their workforce development programs based largely on military models and training concepts.
“I think people don’t want to put in the effort to fight for the budget required to build out something like this, but you have to be willing to invest,” Kirby said. “This is a business tool, not a pulling heartstrings and God Bless America thing.”
CORRECTION, Oct. 22, 3 P.M. ET: A previous version of this story stated that Salute Mission Critical exclusively employs veterans. The company does hire some non-veterans. This story has been updated.