Case Study: Solving the STEM Skills Challenge

by Dr Terri Simpkin, Managing Director, Mischief Business Engineering, (UK & Aust.)

I have spent a good deal of my professional time over the past two decades sitting on panels or delivering key note sessions on the status of workforces and the skills agenda. While the industry focus changes, by and large the topic and challenges remain the same: not enough people, mismatches of skills and lack of diversity.

My focus recently has been on the burgeoning data centre sector. Few people really know what magic happens inside data centre facilities or indeed, how enormous the sector is and so I have come to truncate the explanation of what it is and its purpose by suggesting “it’s where the internet lives.” As far as an industrial sector goes, it’s about as critical to our daily lives as it gets. It is becoming as important to our lives as any other utility, but we tend not to see the same level of hysteria when there’s a short-term power cut than if our wi- goes on the blink. From traf c management systems to Twitter and from banking to emergency services dispatch, all that internet traffic goes through a data centre somewhere.

Given the importance of data centre activity to our everyday lives, it’s a little concerning that barely a week goes by without a data centre industry event, think tank or trade publication declaring that skills gaps, capability shortages or talent wars are ravaging the sector as a by-product of the general STEM skills shortage. The message is clear: it’s hampering growth and putting at risk the critical infrastructure which underpins the digital economy.

Whilst engaging in presentations on the topic at events across the globe I gaze out across the audience and the picture is the same. A sea of engaged, somewhat frustrated and sometimes bewildered men. Usually white men, usually employed in largely middle-class occupations often nearing the maturity of their careers.

Without wishing in any way shape or form to disparage the character of the audience population, its uniform nature is cause for concern. Indeed, the sector itself has been doing a bit of navel gazing of late suggesting that the industry is recognising that perhaps this lack of diversity is a growing challenge which governments and industry have failed to address adequately over the past 15 or 20 years. There is also a growing sense that the STEM skills shortage is an economy-wide crisis. In fact, the rhetoric surrounding diffculties in finding skilled labour across a range of sectors has been decades in the making and largely untouched by a logical estimation of the worth of the diversity agenda.

But while the issue of broadly based skills shortages and capability mismatch is now well known, resolutions (particularly those resting on broadening out the diversity of the data centre workplace) are thin on the ground and what initiatives are in place are failing to keep pace with the rampant demand for people and their skills.

Indeed, attend any industry trade show or conference and any number of good, often repeated, ideas are put forward with well meaning enthusiasm or disheartened frustration. More often than not, ideas from the oor suggest training more people, better targeted university/ vocational curriculum and ‘getting into schools’. This is often followed up with a lament suggesting “I’d love to hire more women, but they don’t apply”.

A raft of published research reports on skills shortages across STEM industries, illustrate clearly that industry players should realise that the skills gap is a not a future matter despite the narrative. It’s here now and has been for at least a decade. A 2016 Manpower report suggests that globally 40% of all employers report experiencing skills shortages, the same as in 2006. The data centre sector, sadly, is at the back of a very long and entrenched queue for the attention of potential entrants to the sector and career changers.

So, what is going on? Why is managing out of a skills and labour crisis so dif cult given that is seems to be a no-brainer that diversity is key to the response? Well, let’s look at the data centre sector as a case study for why simple resolutions won’t cut it.

It’s not just about skills.

Sadly, the issue of skills and labour shortages in STEM is a much more confounding beast than these general and piecemeal suggestions can cope with. If it were a relatively simple matter of putting more people through training the situation would be sorted quite quickly. Structural factors such as an aging workforce, a global market that makes it relatively easy for people to move across borders and traditional workplace structures are impeding the effort to get people in general, and those from non-traditional backgrounds in particular, into the data centre sector.

Retirement rates, a lack of succession planning and labour turnover contribute to a challenging human resources landscape. The sector is unable to train enough people to ll existing vacancies and keep pace with vacancies generated by continued, unabated growth, technical innovation and market complexities.

This situation is compounded by a mismatch in expectations of hiring/ line managers and those charged with managing recruitment. It has been reported anecdotally that this disparity of role/ person expectation may well be overlooking people who could do the job, but are falling foul of out- dated competency frameworks, implicit bias, recruitment wish lists (i.e. skills demands that are unrealistic or unwarranted) and slow recruitment and selections cycles.

It’s such a vibrant sector, why wouldn’t people want to work here?

Put simply, it’s not on the job seeker/career changer radar.

The data centre sector has an image problem. Potential applicants (from entry level to career changers) have only a blurry, if barely perceptible image of what the sector does and can offer. It’s a bit of a long-standing point of amusement, that most people currently working in the sector, particularly those with some longevity of tenure, have fallen into it by a mysterious process of luck.

Many of the industries from which the data centre sector has emerged (for example, IT, engineering, facilities management, communications) have been bemoaning difficulty in finding skilled people for decades. The problem has simply transferred itself into the data centre sector and it is now competing with those well established and better-known sectors for talent.

So too, there is a much clearer picture of prospects and expectations in say, traditional mechanical engineering industries such as manufacturing so it’s little wonder that the data centre sector is well and truly behind the labour attraction eight ball.

The sector finds itself competing in a very crowded market for capability with a poorly articulated employer brand. Why would talented people who already have a good understanding of where other jobs exist, take a risk on a sector that is largely ‘dark’ and generally little known. In a frantic race to secure talent where traditional industries are already two decades in front, hoping that people will fall into a data centre by accident is not a good recruitment strategy. A proper response demands a global, sector wide, branding and awareness raising campaign that clearly appeals to traditional as well as socially diverse labour pools.

‘We just need to get into schools’

As with the employer brand issue, the data centre sector is lagging behind the curve on this one. Most other sectors have a well-established schools strategy. In a noisy landscape of cohesive, tested and funded schools strategies, sectors like manufacturing, retail, health and the emergency services are crowding out the data centre sector.

Sadly, while it makes everyone feel a bit warm and fuzzy, sending a well-intentioned data centre employee, manager or leader into a school for a one off talk about careers is a great idea but it’s not scalable. nor is it ‘sticky’; there’s more to a consolidated schools agenda including support materials, site visits, visual and learning collateral. In an environment where the UK needs over 1.8 million engineers alone by 2025 , doing a few schools visits is laudable and part of a broader suite of initiatives but it simply can’t reach enough pupils with enough impact to make a difference.

Again a well coordinated, approach in line with a concerted sector branding initiative is warranted. Rather than reinvent the wheel, organisations should seek to partner with those already in the game. There are lots to choose from. Pick one (or all of them!) and invest some time and energy in creating a buzz about the sector, particularly for girls and low socio- economic job seekers who may not necessarily be looking at other STEM industries.

Lack of diversity means a lack of innovation.

Like most sectors in STEM industries, a lack of a diverse workforce is doing the data centre sector damage. The sector is built on innovation, new thinking and game changing technical advancement; a lack of diversity in all forms is unlikely to delivery competitive advantage.

Given that broadly speaking around 9 per cent of the STEM workforce is women the data centre sector follows suit with a rather dire lack of women across the sector. Couple this with a broader limited social diversity and an aging workforce and the future looks a little bit grim. While it’s clear that a skills and capability shortage is contributing to rising remuneration as organisations pay over the odds for talent that’s in short supply, the pipeline of talent into the sector and clear succession planning to meet the inevitable raft of exits from the sector as incumbents retire is a pressing issue.

Further, more strategic and coordinated interventions are needed in order to attract more talent, and also to retain it. Even when women are recruited to STEM based jobs, there is a high rate of departure. Managing out implicit bias and changing ingrained ‘lad’ cultures in organisations is a necessary but insufficient start.

Developing leadership approaches that encourage a diverse and inclusive workforce is imperative. Engendering an organisational culture that is supported with inclusive recruitment, selection, succession and professional development structures requires a more forward thinking set of leadership approaches. This doesn’t come easily or quickly, but if the sector is to meet the challenges of today as well as tomorrow there’s little option.

It’s a multi-faceted, wicked problem.

It’s been two decades since Steven Hankin of McKinsey and Co first identified the term ‘the war for talent’. Demographic, organisational, change related and workforce structure factors have conflated since then to deliver a set of challenges that require a consolidated response that’s smart and quick. The data centre sector would do well to devise and implement a strategic and multifaceted approach to the wicked problems associated with filling vacancies and meeting a more inclusive workforce imperative to meet the sectoral growth that is currently experienced, and to address the challenges we expect in the future.

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