By Stephen Whatling, Chairman at BCS
The growth in demand for data centres worldwide has posed many challenges in recent years and this has now been expedited by the Covid-19 pandemic. Following a major uplift in demand for data services since March, the need for a resilient data infrastructure has never been greater.
However, this year BCS’ independent survey shows an increase in concern about the availability of design and build staff with an 11% rise, to 75%, of respondents believing there is an inadequate supply of skilled labour. The same independent BCS survey shows that 90% of those involved in the design and construction of data centres believe there is a dearth of both design and build personnel.
As the confusion regarding exam results and the subsequent issues with university places continues to test the education system, it is a growing concern for the future supply of resources skilled in the design and build of data centres. It is then perhaps no surprise that for the second survey running, greater industry engagement with educators is ranked as the top factor to address this identified skills shortage. This is particularly important given the tremendous competition for suitably qualified STEM staff from a wave of different technology sectors across the wider economy. Early engagement with the industry at the educational level is needed to encourage the next generation of potential datacentre professionals through providing clear routes to jobs and career advancement that exist in many of the competing industries.
Better on the job training and improved or greater incentives for apprenticeships also ranked highly in the survey as respondents acknowledged the positive impact that the education sector and businesses working in partnership can have in developing home-grown resources. At BCS we believe that the expansion of apprenticeship places is vital to the success of the generation of UK based skills. This year we had over 200 applicants for the apprentice and graduate scheme we operate in partnership with London Southbank University which provides funded places and, alongside studies, enables the apprentices to access every aspect of the BCS business.
From this year’s intake, Imogen Paton is enrolled on a Quantity Surveying Degree Apprenticeship at London Southbank University and will be sharing her time between studying there and getting some great practical experience with BCS over the next five years. Imogen said: “I am really looking forward to this opportunity to grow and work with both a great company and great university and can’t wait to get started!”
Many businesses might think that taking on an apprentice during the current pandemic will not bear fruit but that is not necessarily the case. Yes, it can be harder and will require a little more care and attention but the right candidates will learn some invaluable skills during these strange times.
Ben Chappell, a BCS Apprentice Consultant from London Southbank University says he will “definitely take a new sense of confidence in working independently back to the office when the lockdown is over.”
“I’ve been balancing client tasks with Southbank University work successfully, which has given me assurance that my routine is productive. One of the lessons for my industry is that we now know that a significant amount of work can be done remotely if the circumstances require it. However, I am also very much aware of the importance of social interaction for both the office teams and client relations and I’m looking forward to getting back on site,” he said.
It is also worth remembering that the survey was undertaken at the beginning of the UK lockdown, before the length of the lockdown and subsequent travel restrictions could be fully understood. Despite the timing, almost three-quarters of respondents believed that shortages amongst data centre operational staff was already making it increasingly difficult to run facilities well. It is now clear that the difficulties associated with international travel such as the lack of availability of flights and hotel rooms or the more recent focus on quarantine rules has made it even more difficult for the roving teams of design, build and maintenance engineers to do their jobs efficiently. These teams are, of course, essential workers and not subject to the quarantine rules but travel, and life in general, is more difficult now, and as a result less productive. This will mean that even more skilled engineers are required to support the existing infrastructure.
Meeting the demands for greater capacity was an issue before Covid-19 with 74% seeing higher labour costs, 55% using increased outsourcing and almost 50% seeing delays due to the shortage of available skills. It is likely these numbers will be even higher next year. We should also take note of the likely impact of Brexit and any future immigration policy. It is vital that any future policy recognises the importance of the data centre industry in the UK and supports it with favourable access for the skilled workers that will be needed in order to meet the existing demand.
In conclusion, the demand for UK based data centres currently outstrips supply, smart working and automated processes, and a focus on education alongside investment and support from the Government, is required sooner rather than later to ensure the UK capitalises on this opportunity.