UTC’s Got Talent by Steve Ross, 11th May 2022
Speak to almost anyone that has been in the data centre world for any real period of time, and you’ll quickly discover a pretty vast tapestry of backgrounds – because let’s be honest, very few of us began our careers with this industry in mind and with very good reason.
For one, you could argue that we have only recently established the integral role data centres have to play in the world but equally, there is still a lot of work to be done to increase awareness of the sheer breadth and diversity of roles our industry has to offer.
We also live in a world where STEM / Science-based subjects at GCSE level have dropped in the last 10 years by a staggering 75%. The market has also seen a rapid decline in the investment in apprenticeships from big organisations, with a new generation of young people naturally attracted to other opportunities in the market such as IT and media, (which ironically is supporting Data Centre growth and unfortunately not a sustainable supply of engineering talent).
Contrast this with the exponential demands of the data centre industry, where just Ark alone is looking to triple its engineering workforce in the next 3 years and the need for better awareness becomes all the more poignant.
So, when we were first approached by Uxbridge Technical College (UTC) at Heathrow to contribute to their Digital Futures Programme, (born from a need to explore demand and growth areas that would excite the 14–19-year-old students), the opportunity to address a rapidly growing skills gap became crystal-clear.
As the standard BTEC criteria doesn’t naturally lend itself to the data centre industry, the team at Ark, led principally by Brad Boundy (our Technical Compliance Manager) and Pip Squire (Head of Sustainability), supported by Dan Wright, Lewis Rogers, Alan Bosley and myself, worked with UTC to create a ‘Special Project’ element to the overall course structure, designed to ignite the imagination of the students.
All of us are engineers at heart and are equally pretty passionate people, so we pulled together a program which we personally would like to have been taught when we first started out and also chose a subject close to our hearts – sustainable cooling.
Thankfully we have a new generation forming that has a much better grasp on the importance of climate change, so we set about getting our students to learn about the evolving nature of sustainable technology, different methods of cooling, green energy and how data centres can (and should) form a significant part of the solution.
As the students began learning about some of the bigger global brands (which were more familiar to them), and how they were using data centres to hit their own sustainability goals, you could genuinely sense the students interest building – By the end of the first session, they presented back their creative ideas for a mini cooling solution for their own data centre – and the results were genuinely impressive in such a short period of time.
Seeing the student’s excitement and understanding build during the course was immensely gratifying but it’s been equally rewarding working alongside the UTC lecturers, helping them review their papers and even inform future course material to better equip the students for a career in a sector that is ripe with opportunity.
We’ve also enjoyed rare quality time with our peers, (which for a traditionally private industry is almost unheard of). As is often the case, you have more in common than you think and when it comes to good causes like providing young people with opportunity, combined with the healthy by-product of addressing the skills gap, everyone wins.
The other great thing about participating in a programme like this, is that we get the opportunity to encourage a far broader diverse group of talented young people with different backgrounds and hopefully encourage even more women into engineering, (a balance that still needs addressing). It’s also been a pleasure seeing students with learning disabilities tackle the course and to provide help to some young people for whom, the typical school curriculum, just doesn’t cut it.
I imagine you’ll be unsurprised to hear my personal highlights came from the students themselves. From one young lad who quite literally gave everything to the assignment, his research incredibly extensive, referencing every sustainable source you can imagine – Then to see the pride on his face (and that of his team) when we gave feedback, is a sight that I won’t forget anytime soon.
On the Challenge Day, Alan and I tasked the students with selecting a hypothetical data centre location. Just watching them research different environments, debate the pros and cons, assess different matrices – real life challenges in our industry which most seasoned professionals would find taxing, really was something else to witness.
Would I do it again? In a heartbeat. In fact, the hope is to not only replicate the current course sessions but to encourage other colleges nationally and internationally to drive an even bigger Digital Futures Programme.
There is also a big community aspect for us. With our new Union Park facility, local to London and due to go live in 2023, we hope that some of those students will go on to pursue a career at Ark, or among our partners.
And I’ll end on this.
What started as an opportunity to give back, address a skills gap in the industry and to encourage a broad and diverse new wave of talent, has led UTC (along with its fantastic group of partners) to win the Education and Employment Award 2022 at this year’s Data Clouds Awards – and well deserved it is too.
I would also like to take this opportunity to thank UTC, our partners, peers and to an outstanding group of inspirational students – I hope we’ll be seeing you very soon for the next step in some very promising careers.