As the mission critical world faces a growing labor shortage, the industry is working to create new pipelines for skilled workers. Data center expertise is a relatively new specialty that’s not on the curriculum at most major universities, so the data center sector is focusing on retraining employees from other fields.
A notable success story in the retraining field is Salute Mission Critical, which since 2013 has trained more than 1,200 military veterans for careers in the data center industry. Salute was founded by industry veterans Lee Kirby and Jason Okroy to solve two problems at once: helping veterans find meaningful work as they return from active duty, while helping data center companies find talent.
“We’re focused on veterans as the solution to the staffing shortage,” said Kirby, the Chairman of Salute. “I thought I could use my relationships and experience in the data center industry to create a gateway for veterans to enter the industry and build long-term careers.”
Kirby brings deep experience in both the mission critical world and the military. Kirby is a Colonel (Retired) in the U.S. Army Reserve, and saw tours of active duty in Iraq, Afghanistan and Haiti. He also has worked in the data center industry for Exodus Communications, Lee Technologies, Skanska and as President of the Uptime Institute.
In seeking to serve as a bridge between the military and the data center, Salute is addressing one of the sector’s biggest challenges.
“I think our industry is pretty invisible,” said Kirby, who recently retired from Uptime and is now focusing his time on Salute. “When we start interviewing folks, almost none of them know about the data center industry.”
Bridging the Labor Gap With Veterans
Salute has approached that challenge in two ways – creating training programs to provide veterans with essential knowledge, and contracting to provide services to data center operators. The company has 225 full-time staffers, who provide data center cleaning, maintenance and security services to colocation service providers and hyperscale data center operators.
Staffing firms like Salute fill an increasingly important role in the data center industry, helping offset a “grey tsunami” of experienced workers approaching retirement age, even as the explosive growth of cloud computing and artificial intelligence drive demand for more data centers – and more skilled labor to staff them.
As a result, Salute is in growth mode, expanding the range of services it offers, as well as the geography of its service regions. In 2018, Salute completed project work in 24 states, expanded its client base and training operations, added a dedicated sales team, and boosted its 7×24 coverage from three markets to nine markets.
Kirby and Okroy launched the company in 2012. After initially considering a non-profit structure, they opted for a “double bottom line” company that creates profit with a purpose. Kirby’s goal is to have veterans work with Salute for several years, and then transition into full-time careers with companies in the data center industry.
“We have helped thousands of veterans get into the industry,” said Kirby. “When you consider that 12 percent of the veterans we have hired were homeless when we hired them, the context of the impact becomes even greater. The positive impact we have had to veterans and their families is the most fulfilling of all our achievements.”
Military veterans often struggle to find meaningful work after completing their active duty. Recent headlines touting improved employment rates for veterans tell an incomplete story, as many vets struggle with underemployment (accepting jobs for which they are overqualified) or are not counted as part of the labor pool.
Kirby believes military veterans are well equipped for work in mission-critical facilities, which provide a good income and sense of purpose in a growing field.
“Veterans can learn quickly and adapt,” said Kirby. “They follow procedures, and they can do checklists. The key benefit is their leadership traits and discipline.”
Support From the Data Center Industry
Industry leaders agree, citing veterans’ strong skills and work ethics, and embracing the larger goal of supporting military veterans and families.
“The staff at Salute Mission Critical possess a unique set of skills necessary for the data center sector — the ability to be highly detail-oriented, perceptive and quick-thinking,” said Andrew Schaap, CEO, Aligned Energy. “The professionals at Salute serve as a true extension of the Aligned Energy team, embodying our corporate culture and upholding our commitment to customer service, safety and adaptability across our Operations and Security teams. Aligned is passionate about supporting the veteran community and look forward to doing so through a great partner in Salute Mission Critical.”
“Salute’s ultimate mission with our veterans is what compelled me to engage them as a company at inception,” said Chris Crosby, the CEO of Compass Datacenters. “Salute’s service excellence and nimbleness has made me a repeat customer. Work ethic, leadership and adaptability are intrinsic to the Salute approach.”
Salute expands on the data center industry’s long history of hiring veterans with experience in the U.S. Navy’s nuclear submarine fleet. “The Navy nukes can walk out of the Navy and have a job in the data center industry,” said Kirby. “They’re the cream of the crop, and the data center industry has done a good job leveraging that.
“But if that is the only segment of the veteran population our industry uses, we are going to suffer because it is not enough,” he added. “‘Navy nukes are a tiny sliver of the veteran population and not enough to satisfy the personnel shortage in this rapidly growing industry. There are however hundreds of thousands of highly skilled, disciplined, motivated veterans looking to transition every year and to ignore them is bad for the industry and your business.”
How The Salute Process Works
Salute works with the Department of Defense, the Veterans Administration and state-level veterans’ groups to identify candidates and introduce them to the company and data center industry.
“The first thing is that we run them through is safety training,” said Kirby. “Once they know how to operate safely, we work with them on dedicated training.” Salute offers in-house training modules, but also works with curricula developed by Schneider University and Datacenter Dynamics DCPro, among others.
Salute initially focused on data center cleaning as an entry point for service contracts, and has gradually added capabilities, including a range of maintenance for mechanical and electrical equipment, as well as “smart hands” to replace and repair data center gear, and providing site security services and support for network operations centers (NOCs)
In addition to helping maintain facilities, Salute also provides data center deployment and decommissioning services, featuring everything from “rack and stack” for servers in a new facility to asset disposition and data destruction for data centers that have reached end of life.
Cross-training is an emphasis for the Salute team, which allows it to staff facilities with fewer workers. The company is based in Michigan but maintains “Tiger Teams” that operate out of Atlanta, Dallas and Chicago and offices in Charlotte, Dublin, Amsterdam and Buenos Aires.
Kirby says Salute often finds opportunity in providing staff to work overnight and weekend shifts in 7×24 operating environments. It also has been a good solution for companies with “lights out” data centers that are typically unmanned, but need periodic smart hands services for customer support.
An example is Salute’s relationship with EdgeConneX, which operates a global network of edge data centers to support low-latency content and application delivery, many of which are unmanned. Salute supports nine EdgeConneX sites in the US and one in Europe.
The Road Ahead
The EdgeConneX model may offer a window into the future. With the growth of cloud computing and the emergence of edge computing, it appears likely that more data centers will be distributed and operate with minimal or no staff. That figured to provide opportunity for Salute and other companies that provide staff for the data center industry.
“Our service model is going to further adapt to include logistics,” said Kirby. “That’s what we think is going to start working on a larger basis.”
There will also be opportunities to support construction teams, which in some markets are working overtime to keep pace with rapid growth. “I think we’ll have more work in the construction industry,” said Kirby, who sees growing demand for installation of cable trays and racks and fitting out data halls. “We’re seeing a lot of opportunity there for non-engineering resources.”
“As an industry, we compete for workers. I think we need to realize this and get more active.”
Lee Kirby, Salute Mission Critical
In 2019, Salute expects to add more staff as it deploys new teams in Silicon Valley, Seattle, Sacramento and near cloud computing clusters in Iowa, North Carolina and Ohio. Kirby says the company also hopes to work with manufacturers on more certifications, and is planning to launch a new tool called OverWatch to standardize project reporting and employee training across its portfolio. “This will be something that sets us apart from any competitors in the market, and I am very excited to see it nearing rollout,” said Kirby.
Kirby believes some aspects of Salute’s model could be applied to retraining displaced professionals from other fields, and sees on opportunity for vocational schools to address the data center skills gap.
“As an industry, we compete for workers,” said Kirby. “I think we need to realize this and get more active. I do still see the ‘gray tsunami’ coming. There are a lot of people nearing retirement age.”
Salute intends to continue to build a pipeline of skilled veterans moving from the military into the data center.
“These folks are looking for long-term careers,” said Kirby. “There’s still going to be a need for infrastructure work for years to come.”