Big data, machine learning, and AI are sexy. So are the thousands upon thousands of trending apps captivating people. They’re just some of the things data centres enable. But actually building the data centre itself? That’s not sexy. And that’s the problem.  

We stand on the precipice of explosive growth for data centres growth. As highlighted in our new Mission Critical report, rapid investment in 5G technology and growing data needs are spurring new and expanding data centres. According to GlobeNewswire, the EMEA region expects an 8 percent compounded annual growth rate between 2022 and 2026. That’s a nearly €4.5bn market size increase during the forecast period.  

But as amazing as the cloud is, it doesn’t magically appear out of thin air. The cloud is an [admittedly ugly] brick-and-mortar solution made possible by steel, concrete, conduits, pipes, wires, light fixtures, air handlers, even grass and landscaping. It sucks a whole lot of electricity that gets generated through fossil fuels (which opens up a whole can of worms about the need for great thinkers to help make data centres more sustainable). 

Put simply, the cloud doesn’t exist without people out there building it. We just don’t have enough people building it… 

What’s at stake? And how did we get here?  

You can see the problem when you look at the aging workforce in construction. The median age of construction workers in the U.S alone is in the mid-40s, and nearly half of all construction workers are above the age of 45.  

An aging workforce is not necessarily an ill omen. But when there’s little sign of a future generation picking up the baton, it starts to paint a frightening picture. 

The technological revolution happening right now – whether it’s in the metaverse, the Internet of Things, or the generally huge amount of data sharing – means we’re going to need a lot more data centres. The lack of sufficient newcomers to the construction workforce, however, risks jeopardising all of that. 

And can you blame young people for avoiding construction? What we’re experiencing now is the by-product of decades in which our school system has told our children that the humanities are the best viable option for a lucrative career. And if young people aren’t studying the liberal arts, they’re looking into how they can develop the next big app that makes a zillion dollars by age 27. Add to that the fact that construction has long carried the stigma of being an unattractive place to work with unenticing pay opportunities.  

For obvious reasons, this was never sustainable. No doubt, the future of construction will likely ameliorate the labour challenge somewhat: offsite prefabrication and innovations in robotics and automation, for example, will soften things. But regardless of those advancements, manual labour will always be needed. 

Don’t hate on the bricklayer 

It may sound overly simplistic, but our industry – and society more generally – needs to collectively empower, not discourage, those with the natural proclivity for building things with their hands and watching something come to life. 

We need to reward these people with true knowledge and safe, secure, and clean working environments. More importantly, we need to show them a path to the future, and that there are opportunities for progression, training, and upskilling – that the next 35 years aren’t just about dragging a ladder and a tool belt over to a job site every day. There’s an opportunity for people to not just build something big for the future, but for themselves, their community, and their families.  

There’s a reason workers in the data centre field remain so scarce. A great deal of mechanical and electrical engineering knowledge is required, no doubt compounded by growing ESG and low-carbon requirements. The intensity of the work as a result undoubtedly contributes to the difficulty of attracting talent (it’s not called Mission Critical for no reason). This scarcity of the right talent for the job means the industry has fallen into the complacent habit of hiring people based on reference rather than competence.  

If we’re going to resolve this skills issue, we need to shine a light on the merits of working in this sector, which go beyond the mere fact that the data centres sector is one of the best paid in the construction industry. We must raise more awareness of the host of skills from other sectors and industries that can be transferred to data centres, whether someone’s a plumber, bricklayer, electrician, engineer, cost manager, or project manager.  

Perhaps even more importantly, the construction industry needs to look at a greater diversity of people working in the field if enough data centres are to be built. It’s time to realise that over 50 percent of the workforce includes women, and they cannot be ignored. Greater use of tech in the building process, off-site manufacturing, and modern methods of construction more generally open up the sector to a potentially more diverse and engaged workforce, and we must take advantage of this fact.  

And while it’s possible to earn just as good a living in construction, the wage isn’t all that matters. The industry will need to accept in today’s day and age, a better work-life balance must take priority, especially in a sector that often demands a lot out of its workers.  

There’s hope…but when? 

There’s no doubt in my mind that globally speaking, the people will eventually come. Our industry will collectively figure out how to attract the right people. But when will that happen? 

The change that’s needed is not a matter of flipping an overnight switch. The growth potential is there, but we need to change the rhetoric around what it means to work in construction. That starts with awareness-raising at home, at school, etc.   

We might want to act soon, though, because we’re going to run into more issues than simply where our next Netflix binge is hosted.  

Don Harris

Don Harris
Director, Mission Critical

Put simply, the cloud doesn’t exist without people out there building it. We just don’t have enough people building it…