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Why diversity is essential to build the data center workforce of the future by Schneider Electric

Gina Li

It has long been known that businesses with a more diverse talent pool, especially with regards to gender, perform better in business. In 2018, for example, McKinsey published a study named “Delivering through Diversity” which explored the role of diversity in company performance. It found that gender-diverse companies performed 21% better than the national average, and those which were both more ethnically and racially diverse had 43% higher profits.

My last blog took an in-depth look at how infrastructure businesses are innovating to bridge the skills gap, and how our industry could begin to build the data center workforce of the future. Yet to learn more about how the roles of diversity, talent and female leadership were empowering the sector, this International Women’s Day I watched a panel discussion hosted by DCD, which explored how businesses were tackling the industry’s inherent skills shortage and its diversity issues.

The session, attended by industry leaders including Noelle Walsh Corporate VP, Cloud Operations & Innovation, Microsoft, Andrea Munoz SVP, Operations and Customer Success, CyrusOne and Schneider Electric’s Zone President for the UK and Ireland, Kelly Becker, looked at the steps being taken to change the perception of the traditionally male-dominated sector; how it could attract and engage new talent; and importantly, build a more diverse and resilient workforce.

Accelerated growth

In recent years the data center industry has grown quickly, driven, in part, by the impact of the  pandemic, which accelerated dependency and adoption of digital technologies. As more professionals were forced to work remotely, balancing careers with caring for family or supporting children who were undertaking remote learning created new challenges, especially in terms of work/life balance. This in turn began to impact the tech sector, where recruitment, staff retention and diverse leadership became even more important.

As Noelle Walsh stated, “Not only is more diversity advantageous from a business point of view; it’s also the right thing to do.” She added that although diversity was a much broader subject than achieving an equitable gender balance, the presence of women in a wide range of roles within the data center and tech sectors were a “litmus test” for assessing how well a company was handling the issue of diversity in overall terms.

Schneider Electric’s President for the UK and Ireland Kelly Becker pointed out that the company had changed markedly during the last decade. Where once its Executive Committee was overwhelmingly male-dominated, today 44% of its ExCo is female and includes people of different genders and nationalities. This reflects not only the diverse nature of the company’s workforce, but also that of its global customer base.

Speaking candidly, Kelly pointed out that many jobs inside the tech sector, and indeed within Schneider Electric, have long been held by women, especially in areas such as strategic marketing, human resources, and finance. As a strong advocate for STEM and female leadership, however, Kelly is determined to see more women in P&L (profit and loss) and senior roles, primarily because this is where key business decisions are made, and where leaders can empower change.

Echoing Noelle’s earlier point, Kelly stated that diversity was about far more than gender balance. “We need diversity of thought and diversity of experience. As a business, we like to hire smart people who can successfully take on any job they’re given. I am not an engineer but I lead thousands of people who are. It’s a great example for a company to be able to say that it welcomes people with different skills, talents and from a wide variety of backgrounds.”

Skills shortages in the data center industry

Nonetheless, the data center industry continues to experience key challenges when recruiting new talent. The Uptime Institute Annual Data Center Survey 2021 estimates that 47% of data center businesses are having difficulty just finding qualified candidates for open jobs. A key point made by Noelle Walsh was that there are no universities that graduate ready-made data center engineers, so many companies in the sector must recruit from other disciplines including mechanical, engineering and supply chain, and train people accordingly.

“We have to recognize the importance of training, and be able to provide robust skills assessments in order to identify areas for growth while tailoring training to an individual’s needs,” said Andrea Munoz.” We also have to be innovative, to use technologies like AR and VR to simulate the data center environment and help staff overcome the learning curves that come with the industry.”

The challenge of an older workforce was also discussed, and all participants agreed that the industry had to take a more proactive approach to sparking the interest of young people in schools – not only in STEM subjects, but in communicating the importance of the data center sector and how it impacts our lives.

On the one hand, one might consider that the sector is a relatively new industry, with little history to show about how one could build a career inside it. Yet on the other hand, it is the heart of the digital economy and an industry that underpins so many of the services and applications that we use daily but take for granted. Greater efforts to communicate the linkage of daily life to digitized infrastructure and the benefits of pursuing a career in data centers could trigger the interest of the younger generation before their careers even begin, and therefore, yield long-term dividends.

Empowering change

On the specifics of recruiting new talent, Kelly Becker pointed to the importance of bringing back an experienced workforce. More specifically, those such as mothers who had left or taken a break for work-life balance reasons, and who had much to offer in the way of a broader life experience.

As an American based in Europe, she is in a strong position to see how the merits of different region’s approaches to business can be harnessed. For example, in the US much of the focus is on ensuring young people graduate from university, but she remains impressed by the apprenticeship models more commonly found in Europe. “Five of the eight business leaders who work with me started off as apprentices, working with tools and learning their craft in that way,” she says. “They eventually went to college and earned management qualifications, but taking on apprentices opens up to a tremendous source of talent.”

In a world that is quickly evolving, the data center industry is changing faster than most. But with dependency and capacity demands growing at an unprecedented rate, now is the time for leaders to engage and develop the skills base to future proof the sector. Balancing out diversity and attracting new talent, for example, will take time, but the rewards will be significant for all connected industries.

By focusing our efforts, influencing, collaborating, and taking steps to attract and retain a more diverse talent pool, we can build greater resilience in the sector, mitigate the skills shortage, and identify new leaders to help us build the sustainable data centers of the future.

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