Data center builders are feeling the labor shortage burn

  • Executives from T5 and SteelFab said there’s a shortage of skilled labor for data center projects

  • Mechanical and electrical skills are most in demand

  • Builders could feel the heat even more over the next year as sweeping expansion projects get underway

You’ve heard about the cloud skills gap, but what about the data center construction skills gap? Though not quite as catchy a phrase, the situation is just as serious. And executives told us it could soon get worse as new data center expansion efforts drive even more demand for skilled labor.

T5 COO Tom Mertz told Silverlinings that while power availability is the number one challenge facing the data center industry today, finding skilled labor is a close second. He said it’s hard to find qualified construction folks in general, but specifically those in the mechanical, electrical and liquid cooling fields.

“I know what a challenge it is for us to keep up with the growth and how challenging it has been to find qualified people to work in these facilities. That’s only going to get exponentially worse as time goes on,” Mertz said.

While his title is COO, Mertz said he oversees human resources tasks like hiring at T5, which works with hyperscalers and other customers to design, build and manage data centers.

According to Mertz, things are so bad that hiring timelines for key roles have doubled from eight weeks to upwards of four months.

Chris Gregory, EVP at steel fabrication company SteelFab, agreed there’s a labor crunch. SteelFab has helped build more than 140 data centers across 23 states in the U.S.

He said on the data center projects the company has worked on, the supply of mechanical and electrical labor has been strained. And while SteelFab has been able to adequately staff up for the work coming across its desk thus far, he acknowledged the two to three year projections for data center growth are “pretty significant.”

How significant? Well, for example Gregory said data center owners who may have previously built 10 data centers in a year are now looking to build 15 or 20 next year. That’s a trend it’s seeing across “a lot” of owners, he added.

That means the next six to 12 months could get a little hairy. So, buckle up.


There are a few facets to the problem, but the most prominent is a widespread retirement cycle that is leading to attrition at the worst possible moment.

“I think skilled labor in general – if you look at welders, carpenters, plumbers – there’s a lot reaching that retirement age and not nearly enough coming to backfill them,” he said.

"So, you couple that with the huge amount of construction coming down the pipeline and I think that’s going to create a real pinch point," Gregory added.

Mertz also pointed out that data centers are increasingly moving out of big markets like Northern Virginia to avoid power constraints and find cheaper land. As they land in smaller and more remote markets (Hello, New Albany, Ohio!), talent is harder to come by.

Data center builders in the U.S. are tackling the issue in a few different ways. SteelFab, for instance, is doing its best to provide its subcontractor partners with as much visibility into the construction pipeline as it can so they can staff up well in advance. That means rather than waiting until a job is two months away, SteelFab is starting to have conversations about projects that are a year out.

T5, meanwhile, has been recruiting military veterans to help fill certain roles since individuals with that kind of background often have experience working with complex machinery in a rigorous environment. But even those folks are increasingly hard to come by, so T5 is also looking to build up its talent funnel via outreach at high schools and trade schools.

“I think everybody in the industry is doing similar activities because we’re all looking at the human resources capital necessary to support the growth and trying to make sure that we have a large funnel going forward to do that,” Mertz concluded.