The statistics are both exciting and discouraging. Hyperscale capex jumped 43% in Q4 2018, with industry chatter around a 100 MW deal later this year. To keep up with this demand, however, it’s estimated that 400,000 skilled workers are needed in the data center market. During a panel session at the 7×24 Exchange conference last month, we took a look at this hyper gap in hyperscale labor.
As the societal focus on college boomed, the trades suffered. Now, as an aging workforce moves on, the population of the value chain is shrinking. Plus, the complexity of building data centers is leveling up the types of skill sets needed.
My fellow panelists Nancy Novak from Compass Datacenters, Dennis Cronin from Resilient Solutions, Chris Jansen of Faith Technologies, and Bill Mazzetti of Rosendin Electric are at the forefront of trying to address this industry dilemma and reverse the paradigm. Here were four must-dos we discussed to fill the gap.
1. Advocate the Industry
A longer-term strategy is to reinvigorate the trades. Rosendin Electric — one of the largest specialty union shops — is focusing on students as they enter high school. Shop classes that once led down the path are now scarce.
“We’re showing them that the trades are noble vocations and rewarding professions,” Bill said. “We also have an aggressive intern program that allows kids from the office side to enter construction. There’s so much cool technology in our industry now. It often surprises them.”
In another area, Dennis believes that the trades should be better integrated with higher education. His company is working with community colleges and universities to bring more information about data centers and trade requirements into the curriculum.
Having been in construction her entire career, Nancy is dedicated to advancing women and getting them more interested in STEM fields. “Females make up only 3% of trades. They are an extremely untapped part of the population and a huge missed opportunity,” she said.
She’s created a program that offers women with no experience the chance to become operations managers. Their enthusiasm spreads. “I’ve gotten so many thank you messages from women who say they never dreamt of doing this type of work.”
In addition to seeking gender parity, Chris believes an “unrelenting look for quality candidates” will result in a more diverse workforce.
2. Transform Training
After awareness comes training. We can’t prepare new workers for the trades with old approaches. Chris noted, “I’m a third-generation electrician, and the apprentice program hasn’t changed since my grandfather’s day. Out of our 3,300 employees, 67% are Millennials or Gen Z. We have to work the way they want to work by providing things like online training and luring them with exciting technology like lasers and 3-D modeling. We also have to give them a clear career path.”
To that end, his company created Faith University, which offers master classes, so workers can move beyond being a journeyman electrician. This growth helps them earn more. The continued learning also keeps the industry momentum going.
Training must be more broadly focused said Dennis. “We need a different type of facility operator — particularly for hyperscale. They need to understand electrical, mechanical, information systems and how they all tie together. The next gen must also learn quicker than this gen. We absorbed in the field over a lifetime. Now, the industry needs mature processes to match its maturity.”
3. Utilize Smart Solutions
One of the ways to expedite and overcome both physical and knowledge gaps, is through technology — solutions that can save man hours on site. Chris and Nancy especially emphasized the need for an integrated modular approach. He called prefab: “the most critical piece of success for scaling.”
Nancy explained that in many industries — not just data centers — electrical and mechanical trades play the biggest role in value creation. 75% of labor is in these pathways, as is 40% of the value.
In a controlled environment, time and money isn’t the only thing saved. Wear and tear on the body can be mitigated and safety vastly increased. All of the panelists’ organizations rely on custom software to bridge some of the gaps.
Kitting and prefab, however, won’t fully address the labor shortage, according to Bill. “We don’t have enough unskilled labor either, so we have to build buildings differently with more collaborative work among the trades. We have to reduce the overall labor footprint applied to a building.”
That’s not to say, he stressed, that people will be replaced — a common conclusion jumped to in the era of AI. “Robotics, for example, can extend people’s lifespans. We remove the need for them to be on their hands and knees for hours or stand on a ladder holding 75-pound busway. Getting rid of the highly repetitive work makes everyone’s job more palatable.”
To help in this area, Chris suggested breaking down the workflow to identify the structure. Figure out what tasks are primary functions (i.e skilled) and which are secondary (i.e. unskilled). The rest is where you can find and eliminate waste.
4. Retain the New Workforce
As studies show, retaining talented and trained workers takes more than money. Supporting them with help — freeing them up to focus on their core competency — is one way to go. Surround them with people who know logistics or with material managers, for example.
“We can get them to 78% of primary function by complementing them with people who don’t typically work in the industry,” said Chris.
Inevitably, people will leave, but Faith Technologies seeks to preserve the knowledge by converting them to instructors at Faith University or helping them secure roles as consultants.
Nancy’s main advice for retention: “Be a mentor.”
Bill concluded, “Examine your company values, and consider how you treat people. If you have a big problem with retention take a hard look at your organization – are you really talking the talk?”
Scale for Hyperscale – with Prefabricated Solutions
The hyperscale trend will only get bigger. Focusing on these four approaches to level up the labor shortage is a must. Also consider technologies to scale up faster – like with prefabricated data centers – check it out.