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Solving the data centre skills shortage

960 640 Stuart O'Brien

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.

Is the search for data centre talent a threat, asks BCS

960 640 Stuart O'Brien

Continuing unprecedented growth in the datacentre sector is centre may be at risk due to increasing concerns around scarce resource and rising labour costs.

That’s according to the latest industry survey from Business Critical Solutions (BCS), a specialist professional services provider to the international digital infrastructure industry.

The Winter Report 2020, now in its 11th year, is undertaken by independent research house IX Consulting, who capture the views of over 300 senior datacentre professionals across Europe, including owners, operators, developers, consultants and end users. It is commissioned by BCS, the specialist services provider to the digital infrastructure industry.

Just over two-thirds of respondents believe that the next year will see an increase in demand, up on the 55% from our previous summer survey. This is supported by over 90% of developers and investor respondents stating they expect to see a further expansion in their data centre portfolio over the coming year.

However, concerns are being raised by many Design Engineering and Construction (DEC) respondents around general shortages amongst design, construction and operational professionals with four-fifths expressing resourcing concerns. DEC respondents identified build professionals as being subject to the most serious shortages – 82% stated this view compared with 78% for design professionals and 77% for operational functionality of data centres.

When asked to rank the impact of this our respondents highlighted the increased workload placed on their existing staff (96%),  rising operating/labour costs (92%) and over 80% indicating that this has led to an increase in the use of outsourcing options over the past 12 months. The increased workload for existing staff had in turn led to problems in resourcing existing work, with just over 70% stating that they had experienced difficulties in meeting deadlines or client objectives.

James Hart, CEO at BCS (Business Critical Solutions), said: “At BCS we are currently doing the round of careers fairs looking for candidates for next year’s graduate and apprenticeship scheme. When we are talking to these young people we often find that they either haven’t even considered our sector and/or they have misconceived ideas about what this career path involves. We can address this by going into universities, colleges and schools telling STEM graduates about the data centre industry and how great it is. Without action, this these issues will  become more acute, so the rallying cry for 2020 is that the sector is an exciting place to be and we have to get out there and spread the word!”

5 Minutes With… James Hart, Business Critical Solutions

960 640 Stuart O'Brien

For the latest instalment of our IT executive interview series we sat down with Business Critical Solutions CEO Jim Hart to talk about his company, industry issues, opportunities and what Peaky Blinders means to the Black Country…

Tell us about your company, products and services

Privately owned, BCS is the only company in the world that is dedicated to optimising digital infrastructure across the globe for our clients. We offer consultancy services, including project management, cost & commercial management and business strategy, across the development, implementation and operation of the IT asset lifecycle and have delivered 1,500mW of IT load of mission critical data centre space in every continent. Our 100% record of repeat business is testament to the quality of our solutions and we nurture the strength and longevity of our client relationships.

What have been the biggest challenges the industry has faced over the past 12 months?

Our recent European wide survey highlighted concerns that a shortage of sufficiently qualified professionals at the design and build stages will cause a bottle neck, with 64% of data centre users and experts believing there is a lack of skilled design and delivery resource.

And what have been the biggest opportunities?

As we see the greater adoption of the Edge there will be deployments of much smaller facilities on a multiple scale. We see that as a real opportunity as it is about managing an ongoing and overarching programme rather than a single project. While the hyperscalers will still be there, we believe this change will start to redefine a data centre going forward. The edge of the network will continue to be at the epicentre of innovation in the data centre space and we are seeing a strong increase in the number of clients coming to us for help with the development of their edge strategy and rollouts. 

What is the biggest priority for the industry in 2020?

The industry will continue to come under pressure from a resource perspective, there is a real lack of new talent coming to the market. We’ve got to start training and become ambassadors for the industry by going in to universities and telling STEM graduates about the data centre industry and how great it is – it’s an exciting place to be and we have to get out there and spread the word. Going into 2020, this issue will become more acute.

What are the main trends you are expecting to see in the market in 2020?

Into 2020 we expect distributed cloud infrastructure to drive edge computing. Allied to the advent of 5G, Edge will start to gain real traction as organisations require near-instant access to data and computing power to serve their customers, and they are increasingly looking to edge computing to provide a suitable infrastructure.

What technology is going to have the biggest impact on the market next year?

The adoption of serverless computing. Serverless computing is predicted to be one of the biggest developments in the cloud space, however, the serverless transition would require a strategic approach. Moving to serverless infrastructure requires an overhaul of traditional development and production paradigm, meaning outsourcing the entire infrastructure to the cloud

In 2023 we’ll all be talking about…?

We will be talking about high-speed mobile internet, artificial intelligence, big data analytics, and cloud technology which are set to spearhead companies’ adoption of new technologies and they will look to machine learning and augmented and virtual reality for considerable business investment.

Which person in, or associated with, the industry would you most like to meet?

The person at CERN who one day thought ‘we haven’t got enough compute power, I know, let’s ask the world if we can borrow their unused processing capacity’, along with downloadable books, one of the first examples of an embryonic cloud.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learnt about the sector?

When I first entered the sector, certainly for the first 15 years, it was very conservative with the rate of change very slow. The rate of change over the last 5 years or so has increased exponentially and what is sure one day is no more the day after. 

You go to the bar at the Security IT Summit – what’s your tipple of choice?

A cold pint.

What’s the most exciting thing about your job?

Being at the forefront of change and forging trends.

And what’s the most challenging?

Change.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

A quote from Ghandi which was along the lines of ‘live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.’

Peaky Blinders or Stranger Things?

Peaky Blinders, you can’t beat a bit of stylised gangsterism from the black country!

Skills shortage and 5G fears at European data centres

150 150 Stuart O'Brien

Continuing unprecedented demand for new datacentres, fears around the shortage of skilled professionals, concerns about the future disruption of 5G, and the limited impact of Brexit are some of the key findings from the latest industry survey from Business Critical Solutions (BCS).

The Summer Report, now in its 10th year, is undertaken by independent research house IX Consulting, who capture the views of over 300 senior datacentre professionals across Europe, including owners, operators, developers, consultants and end users. It is commissioned by BCS, a specialist services provider to the digital infrastructure industry. 

The report highlights the rising demand for datacentres with almost two thirds of users exceeding 80% of their capacity today, 70% having increased capacity in the last six months and almost 60% planning increase capacity next year.

This demand is currently being driven by cloud computing with over three quarters of respondents identifying 5G and Artificial Intelligence (AI) as disruptors for the future.

With industry predictions that edge computing will have 10 times the impact of cloud computing in the future, half of respondents believe it will be the biggest driver of new datacentres.

However, the survey found that the market remains confident that supply can be maintained, with over 90% of developers stating they have expanded their datacentre portfolio in the last six months.

With regards to supply, there are concerns that a shortage of sufficiently qualified professionals at the design and build stages will cause a bottle neck, with 64% of datacentre users and experts believing there is a lack of skilled design resource in the UK. AI and Machine Learning may help to mitigate these issues with nearly two thirds of respondents confident that datacentres will utilise these to simplify operations and drive efficiency.

The political uncertainty around Brexit continues to impact the sector with 78% of respondents believing that it will create an increase in demand for UK-based datacentres. However, the overall feeling was that the fundamentals underpinning the demand for datacentre space, such as the continued proliferation of technology-led services, outweighs these concerns and the European datacentre market will overcome any difficulties that occur.

Commenting on the report, James Hart, CEO at BCS, said: “As always this report makes for fascinating reading and I was encouraged by the overwhelming positive sentiment to forecast growth and the limited impact of Brexit. The fact that half of our respondents believe that edge computing will be the biggest driver of new datacentres tallies with our own convictions. We believe that the edge of the network will continue to be at the epicentre of innovation in the datacentre space and we are seeing a strong increase in the number of clients coming to us for help with the development of their edge strategy and rollouts.”

The full report can be downloaded here.

Image by Jorge Guillen from Pixabay