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MiSolv CEO Alex Rabbetts highlights need for apprenticeships to encourage new generation of data centre engineers

The recent launch of the computing curriculum is not enough to address a looming data centre skills crisis, MigSolv CEO Alex Rabbetts has claimed, creating a shortfall in the pool of talent required to manage infrastructure crucial to the UK economy. 

As of September, children in UK schools from the age of five are being taught programming and coding skills, as part of plans to replace the old ICT curriculum with computer science lessons. However, Rabbetts claims that the educational reforms need to go further, with companies struggling to recruit talent for data centres underpinning critical national infrastructure with a "massive shortfall" in new recruits.

"You have got nobody coming up through the ranks because there are very few schools teaching about data centre environments and the infrastructure, since it is not on the curriculum. All the curriculum is saying is that can you write some code," Rabbetts told ComputerworldUK during a visit by A-level students to MigSolv's Norwich data centre.

"If you look at the government, they have not got a clue what a data centre is, and they don’t understand that if you switch the data centre off, you switch the country off."

A data centre skills shortage has been discussed for some time, with Gartner analysts predicting a talent shortfall affecting 80 percent of companies by 2016.

Rabbetts said that, while there have been attempts by bodies such as the Data Centre Alliance to encourage training, course tended to be short - often a few days - and targeted at those already in the industry, rather than offering training and education at school or in further education (FE).

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"We need to be talking about the infrastructure at an educational level. We need to be actually training people and running proper apprenticeship schemes where people can learn about the infrastructure and learn about what their ultimate role is going to be. Because when [the current generation of data centre managers] retire from this business, there aren't the people behind us who are going to be able to take over straight away, and that is a real problem," he explained.

One of the main challenges for data centre operators, he said, is gaining access to staff skilled in multiple areas. This demand for generalist staff is being driven to some extent by technological advances in the data centre that is leading to convergence of roles.

"It is the generalist - the guy that understands the technology, the infrastructure and everything - that is where the shortage is," he said.

"If you want to go out and recruit a Unix engineer, Windows engineer, storage or network engineer, security consultant or even a mechanical or electrical engineer - if you employ them all individually, you can solve the problem but it is very expensive.

"What you need is someone who has got a general layer of knowledge across all the disciplines: that is what is difficult to find, and is what the industry needs."

Teaching these skills at a young age - such at A-level - is crucial to supporting the data centres of the future, he said, though finding ways to attract young people to infrastructure management roles may be a challenge.

"There is an element of how we can make it sexy, but ultimately none has tried so who knows whether they will take it up. But it is a critical skill, and without it, UK PLC doesn’t exist."

Image: MigSolv