iMasons: Bridging the Talent Gap in a Booming Industry

iMasons: Bridging the Talent Gap in a Booming Industry

Jeff Omelchuck, Executive Director at iMasons, on accelerating the flow of talent into the digital infrastructure industry

When members of the iMasons Advisory Council are asked, “What keeps you up at night?” the top responses always include how to source the talent needed to meet their planned growth and increasing the diversity of the people in the industry. The people who built the physical and logical foundation of the internet are “greying out”, nearing retirement, and they are concerned about this loss of experience as the industry faces unprecedented growth. While these leaders are mostly white men, they recognise that the readiest source of talent to succeed them is women and people of other under-represented groups. Increasing diversity is not only a practical way to ease the talent shortage, this diversity of experience and perspective is vital as we build the infrastructure to serve a global population. Plus, employment in the sector is another way that digital infrastructure can accelerate sustainable development worldwide - we can hire a diverse workforce to serve diverse communities.

In their 2021 report on job demand in the data centre industry, Uptime Institute reported that employment in the data centre infrastructure sector will increase from 2 million FTE in 2019 to 2.3 million FTE in 2025. This may not sound like a booming industry, but these figures don't include replacing people who leave their jobs, those who are “greying out.”

As an association of individuals, iMasons forms member committees to focus efforts on our key initiatives. Launched in 2018 and chaired by industry veteran Dennis Cronin, the Education Committee aims to bridge the talent gap by increasing the number and quality of the education and training programmes that deliver talent to our industry. The approach has been to identify existing programmes that specifically prepare people to enter and succeed in our industry, and provide scholarships to the students in and entering those programmes. 

iMasons has identified degree or certificate programmes at ten institutions worldwide that fit the bill, and awarded almost 50 scholarships for a total of almost US$122,000 in 2020. Just ahead, we will highlight some of these programmes, including IT Sligo in Ireland, HELHa in Belgium, and Southern Methodist University in Texas.

Of course, in order to give money, we must raise it. In 2018, iMasons launched a US$1 Million Dollar Challenge to fund scholarships. With the incredible generosity of companies and individuals in our community, as of 2020, we are over halfway there. Due to this success, in 2020, iMasons founded the Digital Infrastructure Futures Foundation (DIFF) as a 501c3 charity to enable contributions from individuals to be tax-deductible. DIFF also qualifies for the employee giving programmes and company match of most major employers, accelerating investment in education programmes in our sector.

Coming Up

We are often asked by Universities to assist in establishing data centre programmes. To address this need, in 2020, iMasons launched a Capstone project at Hampton University as a pilot. Due to its success, the programme will now be expanding to three more universities throughout 2021 and 2022. Internships are another key strategy to bring new early career professional talent into companies in our industry, and many companies are seeing success there. CommScope and Vertiv both have excellent programmes that are profiled on the coming pages.

The above programmes focus primarily on university graduates, but we often hear that the skills shortage is most acute at the technician and trades levels. We’ll take a look at Microsoft’s programme to create and support Data Centre Academies to train skilled technicians in partnership with a dozen colleges that are in close perimeter

to Microsoft data centres.

So, while our industry is growing at a breakneck pace, the industry is also working in partnership with the education sector to meet that need, and those efforts are quickly accelerating. Together, we can bridge the talent gap and make for a more vibrant tomorrow! 

Capstone Projects Deliver Fresh Engineers

By Jeff Omelchuck, Executive Director, Infrastructure Masons

I  took my undergraduate degree at Montana State, mostly for the skiing, truth be told. I studied Industrial Engineering, which was perhaps an odd choice as Montana had little industry - at the time, Montana’s biggest export was college graduates. So, because there was little industry around, my senior “Capstone” project was synthetic. We were given a product (ours was an electronic alarm clock), and

our assignment was to design, on paper,

a manufacturing system to make them. It was an important experience, integrating much of what we’d studied: manufacturing processes, supply chain management, cost accounting, quality assurance, plant layout, etc. And it worked! A few months later, I was designing production systems for mainframe computers in Silicon Valley.

So, when iMasons wanted to introduce university students to the digital infrastructure industry, a Capstone Project seemed like a good approach. Phillip Marangella introduced us to Hampton University, a small HBCU in southern Virginia, and we were off and running. The school of Engineering and Technology at Hampton includes Electrical and Computer Engineering and Architecture. We pitched the idea of doing a Capstone in digital infrastructure to the students, hoping at least one team would pick us. We were thrilled when two student teams of engineers and architects chose the iMasons project. Offering them scholarships may have influenced their decision.

In the first semester, the students were given a fictitious mobile phone app with given latency and bandwidth requirements and a user growth curve in the US market. Their assignment was to determine how many data centres, of what size, to put where, to serve that demand, considering population centres, access to power and fibre, natural hazards, etc. In the second semester, they had to pick one of those locations and design the data centre: choose an actual site in that market, select the IT hardware, determine power requirements, cooling strategy, specify all the power and cooling equipment, layout the site and building, and develop CAPEX and OPEX budgets. As they worked on the project, the students met weekly with a team of iMasons mentors who answered questions, provided feedback, and introduced the students to professionals around the world who could answer questions they couldn’t. In this feature, you’ll hear from the mentors, Phillip Marangella, Chheng Lim and Bill Kleyman, about what it was like to get to know these students on that journey.

In April, the students presented their final designs to a panel of senior executives who provided input, advice and encouragement. We had executives from the hyperscalers, leading collocation providers and equipment manufacturers worldwide. I encourage readers to watch the video of the final presentations. The students did great!

The five architecture students were not graduating – they were all in the third or fourth year of a five-year masters degree. However, the seven engineers all graduated two weeks after the final presentation with a BSEE or BSCE. Two of the young ladies already had jobs lined up. Of the remaining five engineers, one went to graduate school, and three were hired into our industry. Our strategy seems to be working!

The 2020/21 project at Hampton was a pilot. The students learned a lot, and so did we. We are busy tuning up the programme for next year, and I’m very grateful to our primary mentors as each has agreed to be a “Lead Mentor” at a new school in the 2021/22 school year, and we are recruiting additional mentors to work with them. I’m very pleased that AFCOM has agreed to partner with iMasons to recruit mentors and support the student teams as the programme expands. Next year, we expect to have Capstone Projects at four minority-serving institutions in the US:

Hampton University

Morgan State University

University of Texas, El Paso

Prairie View A&M, University

In our pilot year, we introduced a dozen university students to the digital infrastructure industry and hired at least three into the industry. This coming year it will be more like 30 or 40!

Supporting multidisciplinary Capstone projects is iMasons primary strategy to accelerate the flow of talent into our industry from universities, and we look forward to expanding beyond the US in coming years. Join us! 

SMU Master’s Degree in Datacenter Systems Engineering

By Jeff Omelchuck, Executive Director, Infrastructure Masons

Dallas is a hot market for data centres and is home to a number of leading data centre companies, including Aligned, Stream and Compass. To meet the growing demand for talent, the industry partnered with Dallas-based Southern Methodist University to create a Masters Degree in Datacenter Systems Engineering (DSE), the first such programme in the US. To ensure alignment with the industry’s needs, the programme maintains an industry advisory council, chaired by Eddie Schutter, CIO of Switch, and iMasons Board Member.

If an incoming student has a bachelor’s degree in engineering, science, or math, the DSE degree can be completed in an academic year and a half if taken full time. The courses can be taken in-person on the SMU campus or online remotely. There is no required hands-on lab component requiring on-campus attendance. “We typically have a cohort of about 20 students entering and graduating each year,” said Volkan Otugen, PhD, the DSE Programme Director. “They are typically about a 50/50 mix of US and international students. Surprisingly, the majority of our on-site students are international. They come to the US to obtain the degree and find a job in the US. The online students are mostly US-based, and most of them are already working in the industry.”

By selecting elective courses, students can specialise in one of the following four areas: 

Facilities infrastructure and management

Data engineering, analytics

Networks, virtualisation, and security 


Yondr: Supporting Digital Inclusion - TechInclusionUK

Author: Liz Raven, Head of Quality at Yondr Group and iMasons EMEA Millennials/GenZ MRG Lead

education has become an increasingly polarising topic as the data centre industry faces a growing talent shortage and a lack of awareness of the opportunities available for young talent in this sector. We’ve been searching for opportunities to turn talk into action and truly make a difference.

 A core value at Yondr is the ability to empower the next generation of talent and provide these young individuals easy access to the opportunities that exist within the data centre business, either through partnerships with colleges and vocational institutions, or by offering comprehensive internship programmes.

 COVID-19 has brought to light one of the biggest challenges in our current society - increased digital inequality. In a world that relies heavily on digital infrastructure, there is a growing concern about the impact of the pandemic on children who are homeschooled and often share one device in the entire household and, in the worst-case scenario, don’t have access to any form of technology at all.

In an effort to proactively overcome these challenges, Yondr Group wanted to tackle this issue differently by partnering with TechInclusionUK to provide computers to those who do not have access to devices that can help them benefit from an at-home education. TechInclusionUK has developed a hassle-free and secure process to put old tech to good use. Their proven platform refurbishes unwanted but working tech, such as laptops, desktops, and tablets, extending the products use-life and amortising the environmental impacts of their manufacture over a longer use-life. The devices are then donated to schools and social organisations to allow young people in education to access the resources they need to have a chance of reaching their full potential.

 For this partnership, Tower Hamlets, which has one of the highest rates of child poverty in London, was selected. Preventing children from being digitally excluded from home education is a key priority and an invaluable way to inject the next generation of leaders with the tools they need to become tomorrow’s digital pioneers and thrive without constraints. 

Chris Crosby, CEO of Compass Datacenters, on iMasons critical role in training the next workforce

By Chris Crosby, CEO of Compass Datacenters

I Masons is playing a pivotal role in supporting educational programs that train the next generation of the data centre industry’s workforce. 30% of current data centre personnel are expected to “grey out” over the next few years, and 60% of data centre operators are concerned about an industry-wide skills shortage driven by that coming wave of retirements. It is critical for our industry to recruit more young people to look at data centre careers and to educate and train those young people with the multi-disciplinary skills needed in our industry. iMasons, and its members, are passionate advocates for both of those critical issues.

iMasons’ involvement in the SMU’s pioneering degree programme – the M.S.

in Data Center Systems Engineering –

is a perfect example of the impact

iMasons is having. This was the first

degree programme in the U.S. that trains students for careers in data centres,

and it has served as a model for similar programmes at other colleges and universities. iMasons has provided valuable input to the programme and has also generously created scholarships for students of need to enter these degree programmes. Those scholarships have recently allowed two students of colour to successfully completed their degrees and begin their careers at fast-growing data centre companies. Thank you to iMasons for their invaluable advocacy for these education programs. 

IT Sligo and HELHa Delivering Data Centre Facilities Engineers

Author: Jeff Omelchuck, Executive Director at Infrastructure Masons

IT Sligo (Institute of Technology Sligo), in County Sligo on the north-west coast of Ireland, and Haute Ecole Louvain en Hainaut (HELHa) in Mons, Belgium, in partnership with Google, Facebook and Microsoft, have taken

a global lead in public institution online training of data centre facilities engineers.

IT Sligo BEng in Data Centre Facilities Engineering

Data Centres are a big business in Ireland, and IT Sligo has risen to support the industry’s needs. IT Sligo began online training in 2002, and this focus has served the institution very well as IT Sligo now has about 5000 online learners this year, the largest cohort in Ireland. The school’s online Bachelor’s degree in Data Centre Facilities Engineering (EU Level 6) has also grown, and they regularly fill their 24 students per year cohort. “Most of our students now come from the firms providing support and services to the hyperscalers,” said Conor Lawlor, Course Coordinator for the DC Engineering programme. 

Incoming students must have a Higher Certificate in a related technical field or have completed a Senior Trades Craft Apprenticeship and have five years’ experience. The degree is a one-year add-on but is taken part-time over two academic years. Lawlor continued, “Most of our students have full-time jobs, so they attend class two evenings a week, working from home. Each lecture is recorded, so the students don’t have to attend live if they so wish.” The high point of each year is the week-long hands-on lab taught at HELHa. “We were initially worried that students would be turned off about having to take the time and expense to travel to Belgium, but they really look forward to it,” continued Lawlor. “The lab facilities at HELHa are really good, and it provides a very good opportunity to experience data centre technologies in a different European country.”

HELHa Masters in Data Centre Engineering

HELHa offers an online “European Master’s” (EU Level 7) certificate/degree in Data Centre Engineering that is typically a two-year programme but can be earned in one academic year if the student completed IT Sligo’s BEng programme. “Our students include both people from other sectors and industries who are upskilling to work in Data Centres, and also BEng students from IT Sligo and other schools who want to earn a Masters. Regardless of their background, this programme provides the Data Centre industry with staff who are qualified to provide in-depth skills necessary for the technical management and operation of data centre facilities,” commented Valérie Seront, Director of the School of Engineering at HELHa. “The tuition for this programme is 3500 €/year. iMasons scholarships allow us to make this training available to all qualified applicants. These scholarships have been particularly important for some of our non-EU students, including several from Africa, enabling us to supply talent globally.”

Robust Internship Programmes Deliver Talent

Author: Jeff Omelchuck, Executive Director at Infrastructure Masons

CommScope and Vertiv are both important suppliers to the global digital infrastructure industry, delivering mission-critical products and solutions that keep the world connected. And both companies compete with better-known brand names for talent. Internship programmes are a key way both companies recruit early career professionals.

CommScope is a leading provider of network equipment and cabling, and their internship program brought about 100 rising university juniors and seniors (3rd and 4th year) and graduate students into the company this year to gain some hands-on experience. Like the company, CommScope’s internship programme is global, and they recruit interns in locations where they have significant facilities. This year they took on interns in the US, China, Taiwan, India, Singapore, Columbia, Brazil, Mexico, Czech Republic, and the UK, in functions including:


Marketing & Sales

Finance and Accounting

Product Line Management

Supply Chain


Software Development

Information Technology

Key Success Factor: Specific Job Descriptions for Each Internship

To ensure that each internship adds value to both the intern and the company, CommScope writes a specific job description for each internship position. “It would be easier to have one generic job description for all interns,” said Jordan Thomas, University Recruiter at CommScope, “However, we’ve found that having the managers write a custom job description helps them think through the type of intern they want, what the project and deliverables are, what resources the intern will need, how success will be measured, and how they will supervise the intern. This strategy seems to be working because many of our intern applications come from friends and family of past interns who had a great experience.”

Internships are also the core strategy for sourcing early career talent at Vertiv, the $4 billion US-based manufacturer of power and cooling equipment for data centres worldwide. The company has emerged from five years of ownership changes with a clear vision to grow and the resources to do it. “We plan to hire 600 engineers between now and the end of the year,” said Chris Anderson, Vice President, Global Talent Acquisition. “We’re focusing on key locations with strong engineering schools, including Pune, India; Shian and Shenzen, China; Zagreb, Croatia; and the US”, continued Anderson. “We expect 20% of those new hires to be early career and new college graduates. Plus, the company recently decided to go after an additional 50 fresh grads in the spring of 2022 for our new Engineering R&D programme. So, yeah, we’re growing! And, our internship programme is key.”

Early Career Hires Drive Diversity

2020 was a rocky year for internships due to COVID, but Vertiv’s internship program has come back strong, hiring over 60 interns this year. “Like most of the tech industry, we’re not where we want to be on diversity. We have work to do,” reported Rachel Taylor, US University Relations and Chair of Women At Vertiv Excel, or WAVE, the company’s Employee Resource Group for women and their allies. She continued, “The good news is that colleges and universities, and the military, are very diverse, so hiring the best talent we can find in those pools is the most natural way to achieve our diversity goals.”

Interns Do Important Work and Gain Exposure

Like CommScope, Vertiv works hard to make sure each intern has a good experience, and referrals from past interns are a key source of new interns. “Our interns aren’t out on intern island,” quipped Taylor. “They are working alongside our regular employees doing real projects. As a lean company, we need them making real contributions, and they don’t disappoint.” Taylor continued, “Vertiv is a very flat organisation, plus our executives are extremely approachable. Everyone, including our interns, interacts with the executives regularly. At Vertiv, you’ll get the access and touchpoints in a year that it would take you three years to get at other companies. You don’t feel like you’re at

a 20,000 person company.” 

Microsoft Data Center Academies Preparing IT Techs

Author: Jeff Omelchuck, Executive Director at Infrastructure Masons

Microsoft strives to be a good neighbour in the communities where they site data centres. That’s the charter of the company’s Datacenter Community Development (DCCD) initiative. One of the “pillars'' of the initiative is workforce development, with the purpose of delivering digital skills training to help community members take advantage of employment opportunities in the IT sector, including work at hyperscale data centres.

To support this goal, Microsoft, in partnership with local community colleges, has developed the Datacentre Academy (DCA) programme. The programme is active with 13 education partners in communities where Microsoft has major data centres; six in Europe and Africa, and seven in the United States, the most recent in Phoenix and San Antonio. “We work with our education partners to advise on curriculum. Microsoft doesn’t develop the curriculum, but we do approve it,” said Anthony Putorek, Senior Global Work Force Development Programme Manager. “The courses are based on vendor-neutral industry standards. We’ve partnered with CompTIA and many of the courses are based on their certifications, like A+, and Network+.”

“Most of the schools offer the students two approaches,” continued Bob Reitinger, also a Senior Programme Manager for Workforce Development. “The schools usually offer a two-year Associate’s degree that students can pursue if they want a college degree, or they can take certification courses ala carte, if that helps them develop the skills for the job opportunities they are seeking.”

In addition to advising on IT curriculum, Microsoft also provides scholarships, especially for students from underrepresented populations in IT; helps design and build datacentre labs for use by the students through donated hardware; and offers paid internships. “DCA interns rotate through a number of different roles during their work experience, providing them with a comprehensive, end-to-end work experience,” continued Putorek. “As

a result, even if the intern doesn’t come to work with us, they’ve received very valuable work experience they can apply to an IT career.”

“The opportunity offered through DCAs is often life-changing,” continued Reitinger. “Often DCA students are working several jobs, trying to earn enough to support their families. After receiving a degree or certifications through the DCA programme, graduates are often able to find work in the IT sector that provides better income. That’s a game-changer for many people in the communities we serve.”