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Short On Workers, Data Center Builders Still Struggling To Keep Pace

Data center builders are feeling the need for speed, but a shortage of experienced construction workers is standing in the way. 

A construction worker cuts a piece of material at Apple's under-construction data center in Reno, Nevada.

Not only is demand for data centers continuing to grow at a near-record pace, but operators need facilities built faster than ever. With speed to market at a premium, experts across the industry aren’t just worried about supply chains disruptions holding up generators, chips or construction materials.

It’s the supply of qualified workers that’s just as likely to cause delays and long lead times. 

“People who looked at supply chain not just as how fast can I get generators and the components that I need, but how can I make sure I have my electricians, my construction side, my build crews — they’re the cream that’s rising to the top right now,” said Sarah Keller, Uber’s director of technology sourcing and global supply chain, speaking at Bisnow’s National DICE Construction, Design and Development Summit.

“There are companies who are waiting in line for an electrician to show up for six months.”

The accelerating pace of digital transformation means that companies don’t just need more data centers than ever before — they need them faster. From massive cloud providers like AWS and Microsoft to companies like Uber, launching a new product or entering a new market ahead of the competition requires having enough server space in the right places right away. 

“We don’t ever want to be in a place where we’re blocking the business’s growth because we don’t have the facility to support it,” said Keller, estimating that Uber’s infrastructure needs are growing at more than 30% each year. 

Yet companies trying to simultaneously meet record scale at a record pace are hitting a problem: a lack of construction professionals, from electricians to pipefitters and HVAC specialists, with experience working on the complex, mission-critical systems needed in data centers. 

At the heart of these workforce woes is the high level of specialization and industry-specific experience required for data center construction. Because of the mission-critical nature of data centers — where an outage can cause millions of dollars in economic damage and jeopardize public safety — previous experience in the industry is prized. And with speed at a premium, experienced workers in less technical areas of a data center build, like framing and roofing, are able to do the job quicker. 

“We hear time and again from the people on those projects that an experienced workforce is critical,” said Rhonda Ascierto, vice president of research at Uptime Institute. “It’s sort of simple, but the first time you have to do something, it's going to take you longer than if you've done it before.”

Amid a flood of demand that shows no signs of abating, it is perhaps unsurprising that the existing talent pool has been spread thin. Indeed, data center operators are similarly having trouble finding operations staff to work at their facilities. Exacerbating this problem is a reality that may be less intuitive in an industry on the cutting edge of the digital revolution: Its workforce is getting old.

Nearly half of the sector’s workers are nearing retirement age, according to data from Uptime Institute, which warns of an upcoming “silver tsunami” across the sector.

Experts say the labor needs are particularly acute on the construction site, where instead of being able to gradually develop full-time employees, builders need to rapidly staff up with experienced professionals in order to complete hyperscale build-outs in the millions of square feet in as little as six months. It amounts to a massive so-called peak workforce problem.   

“It’s really hard on the trades because, by the time you start, you’re already doing triple shifts right out the gate,” said Nancy Novak, chief innovation officer at Compass Datacenters, a speaker at the Bisnow summit. “The workforce is depleted, the workforce is aging, and the skill set is not something we’ve seen in the past, but we need to meet the demand.”

The growth of new data center markets has compounded this problem, experts say. While there may be plenty of skilled data center builders in industry hubs like Northern Virginia, that workforce is likely much harder to come by in an emerging market like Columbus, Ohio, never mind for a rural hyperscale development like Meta’s data centers in Utah and Iowa. 

“We’re hearing these conversations: if we don’t plan our build in Arizona right, chances are we’re not going to get an electrician,” Uber’s Keller said. “Now people are trying to effectively bring workers in from other places and paying for travel expenses just to be able to keep things online. Think about the cost of that.”

Compass Datacenters' Nancy Novak, Uber’s Sarah Keller and moderator Marshall Sorenson

As Bisnow has reported previously, these labor woes have driven increased investment in workforce development across the data center industry, with major operators finding data center programs at high schools and community colleges and growing efforts to recruit from the armed forces.

This past week, Uptime Institute, Microsoft, Google and Meta, launched Data Center Career Pathfinder, an online educational resource that provides information on every career path within the industry, from cleaning staff to construction managers to electricians and HVAC specialists. The initiative aims to address what industry leaders say is their greatest barrier to recruitment: a lack of awareness about what data centers are and the fact that the industry offers six-figure career paths that don’t require college degrees. 

But while workforce development may provide long-term benefits, data center builders need solutions now. And to hit ever-shorter deadlines with less experienced labor, they’re increasingly turning to prefabricationmodular construction and other off-site construction options. Industry insiders say that for less technical aspects of a data center build, prefabrication allows a less experienced workforce to work more efficiently.  

“Everything is done in a factory environment, so the requirements can often be more standardized, and to some degree, the skill set can be different and maybe not as demanding,” Uptime’s Ascierto said.

“The requirement often is for more experienced workers on a construction site because you have to deal with so many different factors, unlike inside a factory where the roles and responsibilities and the engineering has all been planned out ahead of time.”

In addition to alleviating the labor crunch, Compass’ Novak says prefabrication may also help expand the workforce by creating entry-level data center construction roles where workers can build the experience necessary for on-site roles. 

“It’s all about thinking about giving that person with the tool more tool time so they can be more efficient, and that’s something our industry has struggled with,” she said. “We can try to do more with less in controlled environments, and therefore bring in a new, more diverse workforce.”