Northern Virginia Community College is launching a program to fill the workforce for one of Loudoun’s most famous and fast-growing industries: data centers.
Loudoun is home to more than 75 data centers, according to the county Department of Economic Development, and more open every year. NVCC’s new two-year program, called Engineering Technology: Datacenter Operations Technician, begins this fall and will provide student training in a cross-section of all the nuts-and-bolts work needed to keep a high-tech data center going, from HVAC and cabling to Occupational Safety and Health Administration requirements and how to communicate in an engineering setting. And like other NVCC programs, it will be built on hands-on training, with a mock-up of a data center on campus.
“I think from our point of view, there are lots of students—and this isn’t just for the younger students straight out of high school, this is for older students as well—this is a less traditional career path maybe for people in this area,” said NVCC Loudoun Campus Provost Julie Leidig. “But it has tremendous opportunities.”
“People that love the hands-on aspect of technology are really going to be engaged in the program, and really come out with not just the skills, but really strong employment opportunities,” said NVCC Dean of Mathematics, Science and Engineering Chad Knights.
Leidig and Knights said that’s because the data center business is growing faster than the pool of people qualified to work in it.
“For the longest time we’ve been hiring people from the Navy nuclear program, primarily for operations, but now we’re trying to actually get a local source of talent for these data centers,” said James Leach, vice president of marketing for RagingWire, one of the largest data center companies in Loudoun. And he said it’s not just his company—dozens of data center companies are “hungry” to hire qualified people. Leach said they often hire people from the U.S. Navy’s nuclear programs simply because they have the right skills and attitude.
“Those people understand what it means to run mission-critical operations,” Leach said. “What we think is, we can develop those same skill sets and that attitude here.”
Students from technology programs at C.S. Monroe Technology Center and other Loudoun high schools got a tour of one of RagingWire’s Loudoun data centers Tuesday, and some advice on the industry from a panel of people working in it.
Steve Reynolds, CEO of TechESP, which specializes in data center buildouts and transitions, helped develop NVCC’s program. And he told the students gathered there that analysis and logic are the keys to working in the field.
“If you can analyze a problem, understand a problem, move through that problem in a logical manner, you can work in IT,” Reynolds said. “Same with the data center environment. A lot of what we do is problem-based.”
Charles Wade, the operations supervisor for RagingWire and former Navy nuclear mechanic, said employees should be hungry for knowledge.
“In my experience of working in the Navy, working here—so both military and civilian life—the people that ask the question and put in the work are the ones that really get ahead,” Wade said.
One of the people he supervises, technician Michael Carr, said communication is key, and RagingWire Vice President of Operations Phillip Sandino said good employees are marked by their ability to take feedback.
“For forever on, their work product will be better because they incorporated feedback,” Sandion said. “So to give feedback, and to get feedback, is a very mature trait.”
He also said workers’ knowledge base should be “T-shaped”—“You should have a breadth of knowledge, but somewhere you’ve got to have depth of knowledge.” To that end, Leach said, “don’t shirk your learning in English language and being able to communicate and write effectively,” pointing to the step-by-step instructions that data center technicians and engineers have to write for working with critical electronics and dangerously high voltage.
“It’s high expectations, high levels of contribution, high levels of training, and a very rigorous methodology of not killing yourself,” Sandino said.
Leach pointed out the panel was all male, but the industry insiders there said are opportunities for female students.
“This panel is not male-oriented, we’re male-dominated, unfortunately,” Sandino said. “And I say unfortunately because I’m open to anybody who brings me diversity of thought. I need all points of view to be effective.” He advised female students not to be put off that the industry today is male-dominated. “It’s an opportunity.”
The data center program at NVCC is meant to help students develop teamwork, critical thinking, problem-solving skills, and the right knowledge and hands-on experience. It will also prepare them for industry recognized certifications.
“What we’re doing here in these data centers is something that I think is really important, and it is something that’s impacting the world in a way that a lot of people don’t understand,” Leach said. “And I think it’s a great opportunity for people who are early on in their careers to be a part of something that’s really special.”