Skills - the biggest barrier yet

By James Hart, CEO at BCS.

  • Wednesday, 31st May 2023 Posted 1 year ago in by Phil Alsop

For some years, the industry has been aware of a potential threat to the delivery of enough new data centre stock - a shortage of sufficiently qualified professionals. Initially concerns appeared around the design and build of new facilities but has also emerged in the fields of operations of data centres. Whilst these threats have been given more prominence in the last few years in the wake of international lockdowns and the imposition of restrictions on the movement of skilled labour to areas of demand, they are long-standing having emerged from the dislocation of the pace of growth of the industry and the pace of growth of attracting and training skilled labour resource.

These concerns are highlighted in our most recent survey that gathers the views and insights of over 3000 senior datacentre professionals from across Europe. In fact, 96% of respondents believe that the coming year will see a decline in supply of staff, an uplift on the 91% reporting this in summer 2022, and slightly above the 93% who reported the same in Winter 2020 arguably at the heart of the COVID-19 crisis across Europe. And, to further exacerbate the problem, some 90% believe that this will be accompanied by a rise in demand for such staff.

Certainly, in the case of build and design professionals, the debate around potential shortages of skilled labour is centred on the potential impact for the delivery of new data centre space and subsequent consequences for the end-user. When questioned on this, our respondents are unequivocal in their assertions that these

impacts are real and are being keenly felt. Indeed, most respondents noted a multitude of factors when quizzed on these impacts.

The most cited impact is that these skills shortages have placed a greater workload on existing staff, nearly nine-out-of-ten noted this as the case, the same proportion recorded six months ago.

The shortage of staff has inevitably led to increasing operating/labour costs recorded by 87%, a rise from the 83% reported last summer. Such shortages also can be seen as a contributory factor in the increasingly popularity of the use of outsourcing options, with around 52% citing it as such, marginally up on the previous survey – 51%.

Encouragingly, it appears that fewer respondents are finding it difficult to resource existing work this year than was the case earlier in the year with just over 43% stating that they had experienced difficulties in meeting deadlines or client objectives, down from 52% six months ago and well down on the 70% who cited it as factor at the beginning of the pandemic in Summer 2020.

In addition, around 48% stated that shortages had led to delays to developing new products/innovations, marginally up on the 44% reported in our last survey, whilst the proportion that noted they had ceased offering certain products or services has also risen to 14% to 17%.

However, the more extreme consequence of skills shortages is lost orders, with 8% of respondents still believing that this happened, this is in line with the levels identified six months ago, but well down on the 20% who recorded the same a year ago.

Our survey suggests that respondents are increasingly seeing shortages amongst design professionals with 72% stating concerns six months ago to over 81% which is back in line with the levels expressed toward the end of 2021. This increase is echoed when it comes to build professionals - up from 78% to 83%. There was however some improvement with regard to sourcing operational staff for their data centres where the problem seems to be less acute with a decrease in numbers stating their concern of 7%.

Most suppliers of data centre services appear worried about this balance between supply and demand of labour with the majority of colocation providers carriers/network operators and IT integrators believing the coming year will be characterised by falling supply and rising demand. The findings of our survey are reinforced by the Uptime Institute who have forecast that staff requirements will grow globally from about 2 million full-time employees in 2019 to nearly 2.3 million by 2025 which makes availability of skilled professionals the most significant and prevailing barrier to the industry’s ability to meet demand.

So, what can we do? At the very least we need to raise awareness of the opportunities in our sector at an early age and make sure it is at least on youngsters’ radar as a possible career path. This needs to be supported by readily available STEM and apprenticeships like the one we have operated at BCS for several years. We are passionate about building a learning culture that gives apprentices the opportunity to shine from the outset and our BCS’ Assistant Training Programme is designed to give them the technical (office based) and practical (site based) knowledge, skills, and experience they need whilst supporting their studies. We also find that their fresh thinking, enthusiasm and passion is good for our business as it can reinvigorate the way we look at and approach things. Our recruitment policy also

targets the right people and industries where the skills are transferable, such as Project Management, and also promotes diversity and inclusion.

In conclusion, we all have a responsibility to continue to invest in the skillset of the next generation of engineers and project managers and without this type of action there are very real risks to the words continuing digital transformation.