Construction skills - my technology conversation killer

Iain Farquharson, Specialist Services Design Manager, provides an insight into his thoughts on reading ISG's latest Wide Angle report, 'Rethinking the skills conundrum'.

I recently attended an industry event and got talking with some representatives from several global technology brands. We were discussing skills shortages and the war for talent, and my fellow attendees were bemoaning the lack of appropriate coders and programmers entering the technology industry. When I casually mentioned that they might also be concerned about the dearth of steel-erectors, structural engineers and sustainability consultants, I inadvertently succeeded in stopping the conversation dead.

On one level, it’s completely understandable why cutting-edge technology innovators would consider construction skills ‘out of scope’ in a discussion around their recruitment challenges, but it’s a growing issue that is cutting through in Silicon Valley and beyond, as senior leaders sit up and take serious note.

It is widely speculated that the proliferation of AI means a minimum five-fold demand on network capacity. We may all be forgiven for thinking the ‘cloud’ is an ethereal and ubiquitous presence, but the more mundane reality is that it is facilitated by a network of hyperscale datacentres around the globe. A network that needs to grow at record levels to support the exponential demand for computational power.   

The paradox at the heart of our prematurely ended discussion is that the intangible data service we receive into our homes and businesses, is entirely dependent on a large physical building asset, with a niche contractor base and a highly specialised supply chain. The latter points not immediately inferring an ability to scale and mobilise rapidly to meet persistently growing demand.

Had my associates hung around a bit longer, instead of making for the nearest coffee outlet, I might have had the chance to add that there’s a growing consensus that the core drivers of datacentre projects – programme and resilience – may be a causal factor inhibiting the widespread adoption of innovative practices and solutions that negatively impact our ability to scale up delivery and further increase programme efficiencies. They could also prove counterproductive in securing appropriate planning decisions.

It's a contentious point to some, but when time is at a premium, due to the sheer scale of global demand, it’s easier to replicate than innovate datacentre design. Resilience is a fundamental requirement of technology Service Level Agreements – outages are counted in the magnitude of millions of pounds/dollars in damages per day, so why risk a new cooling system, for instance, that hasn’t the time served credentials of its predecessor? 

Inadvertently, the technology sector - founded on the principles of innovation and disruption, may in fact begin to be constrained by the very nature of global demand for its product. But the positive news is that technology companies are already wising up to this challenge. Many global technology firms are committing to innovative practices and approaches within their physical datacentre assets – engaging contractors early in the development process and taking bold decisions on utilising advanced and highly efficient products and services, that significantly reduce energy demand. This latter point is important to bear in mind when we revisit issues of planning consent – by reducing power requirements, we open up greater locational opportunities for datacentres.  

Carefully balancing the often-competing influences of programme and resilience, with innovation and early engagement is an increasingly smart strategy to avoid building obsolescence into our datacentre assets. Sometimes it also provides a way for construction professionals to speak about our role in supporting the technological revolution that has transformed and constantly shapes our lives today – just not this time! Remember, without a construction manager there is potentially no Chat GPT or heaven forbid - Fortnite.

Skills shortage | ISG

Construction: the great overlooked tool in our strategic workforce planning

Our latest Wide Angle, ‘Rethinking the skills conundrum’, seeks to connect the dots between people, place and productivity.

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