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Data centre skills dearth sees SA players poach talent

Sibahle Malinga
By Sibahle Malinga, ITWeb senior news journalist.
Johannesburg, 28 Jun 2023

As the data centre skills gap continues to worsen in South Africa, local data centre operators are “pulling” talent from each other.

This was the word from panellists during a discussion on “Investing in data centres across Africa and building local and national supply chains”, at the Pan-African Data Centres Conference, this week in Sandton, Johannesburg.

The panellists, from Africa Data Centres and Teraco, told moderator Juanita Clark, CEO of Digital Council Africa, how the combined impact of several local and international companies increasingly investing in data centres in SA fuelled strong demand for skills.

This, they noted, has further widened the skills gap, with skills such as technology hardware and software and cloud computing being the most sought-after.

While SA’s burgeoning data centre industry presents infinite economic opportunities and is set to become the backbone of Africa’s digital economy, the continent’s well-documented data centre sector skills shortage is among the key challenges facing the sector, noted the panellists.

Other challenges highlighted are supply chain complexities, the ongoing power crisis, meeting data security compliance requirements, and governance around property rights, ownership and leases.

“We struggle with skills shortage − and it’s not basic or low-level skills,” commented Dr Angus Hay, regional executive of Africa Data Centres.

“We are able to find people who have recently qualified – but often they don't have the right background. We find it extremely difficult to find someone who is, for instance, a technician with both a tertiary qualification and 20-year experience and knowledge of infrastructures in a critical infrastructure environment that requires continuous maintenance.

“There's no magic to the fact that we are competing for skills; we pull people from each other and we are really struggling to find the right people. In certain areas, we do have to bring in global skills. As Africa Data Centres, we have an approach that 99% of people we pull in any market are going to be from that market.”

With nine data centres across six countries, Cassava Technologies-owned Africa Data Centres is Africa’s largest network of interconnected, carrier- and cloud-neutral data centre facilities.

The shortfall of people needed to design, build and operate data centres across the globe is well into the millions, according to experts.

Dr Angus Hay, regional executive of Africa Data Centres.
Dr Angus Hay, regional executive of Africa Data Centres.

The Uptime Institute’s Global Data Centre Staffing Forecast 2021-2025 predicts that data centre staff requirements will grow globally from about two million full-time employees in 2019, to nearly 2.3 million by 2025. Most demand is expected in the Asia-Pacific region, followed by North America, Europe, Middle East and Africa, it says.

Also participating in the panel discussion, Michele McCann, head of interconnection and peering at Teraco, explained that poaching skills is not the solution. Rather, a new skills pipeline must be created, centred on skills development, training and upskilling.

“As more data centres grow in Africa, it's important to understand the macro-economic challenges and opportunities of investing in building data centres,” she noted.

“As data centres boom everywhere, job-hopping is happening. But this is not going to be helpful, because the industry is going to need a tonne of people to fill the skills gap. We have got tonnes of vacancies open and we cannot fill the headcount.”

Teraco operates several vendor-neutral colocation data centres in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban.

Africa’s cloud growth and reliance on technology are fuelling digital transformation initiatives and demand for high-performing data centre space.

According to the Africa Data Centres Association, Africa needs 700 data centres, totalling 1 000MW, to enable the spread of digital services across the continent.

In December, Vantage Data Centres, a US-based provider of hyperscale data centres, announced the beginning of construction of its second data centre campus in SA.

The news came in the same week that digital infrastructure company Equinix revealed it will invest R2.8 billion in a new data centre facility in Johannesburg.

Other players that have set up data centres in SA include Amazon Web Services, Microsoft, NTT and its subsidiary Dimension Data, and Huawei.

Last year, Google confirmed plans to establish a data centre in South Africa.

According to Hay, Africa’s data centre industry is marred by lingering supply chain challenges. Data centre operators are forced to outsource electrical mechanical and facilities management skills to ensure they have the right skills-set, particularly when building data centres in a small market, he pointed out.

“The added pressure of importing supply chain equipment can be a complex task for data centre operators who have to ensure they have the right support, agents, spare equipment and skills to maintain the imported equipment. The smaller the market, the bigger the challenge.”

As more data centres become sustainable, there is also the challenge of sourcing skills to support the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, such as energy planning, development practitioners, solar power technicians, electrical engineers, operations and maintenance managers and mechanical technicians, noted the panellists.

“Due to lack of skills and the need for job creation, we launched the Teraco Academy two years ago where, essentially, we bring in tertiary grade young adults and we train them up through NQF level, and other levels with a focus on skills like solar power engineering,” McCann said.

“Once they complete their courses, they can then be employed either by Teraco or any company within the market. This is how we are hoping to eventually resolve the skills issue within the company.”

As far as data centre design is concerned, computer hardware and technical skills, as well as information security skills are in short supply, the panellists noted.

“The reality from an African perspective is that there are very few suppliers which have all the relevant data centre design competencies. We still struggle to find basic design skills among our suppliers,” said Hay.

“We are currently building a new data centre in Samrand, and we are expanding a data centre in Midrand. We have three or four separate sets of design engineering consultants, but I don't think we are at the right maturity point in the South African market yet where we can look to open source as a design too.”

Michele McCann, head of interconnection and peering at Teraco.
Michele McCann, head of interconnection and peering at Teraco.