The Future of the Data Center Depends on Sustainability

Author: Peter Hannaford, Senior Partner at Portman Partners

In its recent report, “The people challenge: Global data center staffing forecast 2021-2025,” Uptime Institute reported that as data center capacity is being expanded, the availability & potential lack of specialist staff will be an issue of concern for the future.

While a growing proportion, 34%, of IT & data center managers said they believed some of the staffing shortage would be mitigated by the introduction of artificial intelligence reducing overall need, AI will not replace the demand for the executive management required to lead the industry forward.

An Uptime Report from 2018 found it wasn’t just data center equipment that was aging, but that data center staff was aging too. Simultaneously, while the number of women in the tech industry is increasing (albeit too slowly), their interest in the sector is not. As more women than men are pursuing higher education, & an increasing number are pursuing advanced business degrees (MBAs and MBOs), it is essential the potential future leaders’ perspectives on the industry change. That can only happen if the industry itself chooses to change as well. Ultimately, the data center sector must focus on appealing to an entirely new cohort of young professionals – men & women alike.

The next generation of leaders, in business, science & technology, medicine, education, & in every sector, public & private, of every industry around the world, is the next generation itself. The so-called Generation Z, born between 1997 and 2015, includes recent graduates & students being educated now, from elementary through college. The data center industry has an opportunity now to re-define itself in ways that capture their attention as an essential sector upon which the functioning of our entire digitally accelerated world depends. In the battle for future leaders, it is incumbent upon each data center company, no matter their size or footprint, to ensure they are as appealing to prospective candidates as other companies, including those in more glamorous or high-profile industries.

To understand how to accomplish this, one must understand this generation, how they think and what they value. While none of the generational designations apply to all who fall within its birth year brackets, there are some indicators we can look to that will help shape the conversation the data center industry must engage in with them.

Generation Z shares some characteristics with Millennials, another generation that hasn’t run toward data centers for employment. But GenZ’s formative years were shaped by a very different world than that which influenced Millennials. Researchers have identified significant differences between the two generations in their attitudes, tendencies, and outlook. The Pew Research Center data paints a clear picture. Here’s what we know:

  • Diversity is the norm for them, and that doesn’t just apply to race and biological gender, but also identity and orientation.
  • GenZ is our first generation of “digital natives” born into a world of peak technological innovation.
  • They are pragmatic and financially minded.
  • They are shrewd consumers and view purchasing decisions as an expression of their values and identity.
  • They are politically progressive — even among the more conservative in the age group.

AND – very important to them and to the future of data centers . . .

  • The issue Gen Z cares most about is climate change and sustainability.

This year, 2021, the Gen Z population will make up 40% of the working & consumer population. They are pretty different from the workforce you have become used to, so it’s time for companies to be prepared to welcome & understand them. The importance Gen Z places on working at companies whose values & priorities align with their own is unprecedented. The issue of sustainability ranks at the top of their list of significant social & economic concerns, affecting how they want to spend their money & where they will live, so it is not surprising it strongly impacts the companies they will choose as their employer.

Currently, as exacerbated by the Covid-19 crisis, we see the job market changing. With the prediction that the workforce will be shrinking for a multitude of reasons, the battle for talent will intensify. If they want to win in the competitive talent market, all companies must think innovatively and prepare differently. Prospective employers must design their businesses and the jobs they offer in ways that will not only attract Gen Z, but also engage and retain them. Companies place a heavy emphasis on succession planning, but without a steady stream of talent into lower-level management, the development pool will be shallow and future prospects weak.

The data center industry must move now to ensure young talent fills the jobs needed to generate a pipeline of future leaders. If a company wants to be considered a destination for new talent, it must ensure its business aligns with Gen Z’s values.

According to a 2019 Porter Novelli/Cone Gen Z Purpose Study, Gen, increasingly dubbed “Gen Green,” cites climate change as their top priority. With the corresponding media lens focused on the sector as a climate culprit, it isn’t hard to see how important it is for the industry to demonstrate commitment to solutions with authentic sustainability initiatives. While other issues are of concern to GenZ, notably diversity and inclusion, an area that has long been lacking in the sector compared to other industries, addressing “Gen Green’s” top priority is essential.

Suppose Generation Z continues to view data center enterprises as contributors to the climate crisis or believes it is an industry that is not proactively addressing the problem through investment in meaningful, public sustainability practices. In that case, data centers will be last in the line of career options they will consider.

Companies that acknowledge the potential impact Gen Z will have on the global economy and the importance a commitment to sustainability has for them will be the victors in the war to attract the best, brightest, and most innovative future leaders. These up-and-coming leaders will be one of the most significant determining factors of a business’s future success.

So, sustainability is about people. The people who live on this earth, breathe its air, and drink its water. But for data centers, it’s also about the people who will run their businesses and lead the way to the future.