A Promising Career in Data Centers: Your Pathway to Success

A Promising Career in Data Centers: Your Pathway to Success
Join NOVA, employers, and unions in the fast-growing field of data centers
After honorable service in the Navy as a nuclear engineer, TJ Ciccone found himself working retail at a gas station for a decade. Chris Cash had to drop out of college due to financial constraints. But both of them found rewarding careers in the data center industry, and now they're helping others do the same.
Ciccone, now the vice president of critical operations for STACK Americas, and the instructor of a groundbreaking course on data center operations at Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA), says, "Someone gave me an opportunity, so I feel compelled to pay it forward."
Cash, an electrician apprentice with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), experienced a life-changing transformation thanks to his apprenticeship. Within five years, he was earning more than both of his parents.
Now, nearly 1,000 IBEW Local 26 members in Prince William County, many of whom work on data center projects, are following a similar path. This success is largely due to the union's registered apprenticeship program, where Cash taught and eventually became the local's financial secretary.
The demand is high. The data center industry is growing globally at a rate of 11% each year, according to the Synergy Research Group. However, there's a shortage of trained professionals to keep up with this growth. "More people are retiring from the industry than joining it," says Ciccone.
About 53% of data centers struggle to find qualified candidates for open positions, as revealed by a recent survey. Additionally, when new data centers are being built, they require hundreds of skilled trade professionals to meet challenging construction schedules.
The lack of awareness about the opportunities in data center operations and construction is a significant barrier. Many people are unaware that entry-level data center technician roles can start at $80,000 or more per year. Similarly, electrician apprentices can earn $26 per hour and potentially reach $106,000 annually, along with benefits upon completion of the five-year apprenticeship program. These fields offer an alternative to a traditional four-year college degree, but colleges and high school counselors often neglect to promote them.
"The trades have been underrated by our education sector," says Kelly McAteer, director of marketing for Carter Machinery Co. "We need to change this stigma because these careers are outstanding."
To address this demand, unions, community colleges, and employers have developed various pathways to guide individuals towards careers in and supporting data centers.
NOVA's data center operations program began in response to the community college's desire to help students enter high-demand fields. By doing so, NOVA not only benefits the students but also solidifies the region's position as a top employer in the data center industry and other high-technology fields.
Since its launch in 2019, NOVA's data center operations program has grown significantly. Over 140 students have completed the program, which offers an associate's degree in engineering technology, a career studies certificate, and DCO-specific classes. More than 100 former students have secured full-time employment in data centers.
IBEW Local 26 offers a comprehensive five-year apprenticeship program where apprentices attend classes one day every two weeks and work the rest of the time. Tuition, books, and other expenses are covered by the union. Each year, around 200 apprentices graduate from the program, equipped with a journeyman electrical license, a union card, and a lifelong career path.
"Cultivating a trade is an invaluable asset," Cash emphasizes. "Apprenticeships work. We earn as we go, pay our apprentices, and they face no financial burdens throughout the program."
Both Ciccone and Cash emphasize the numerous pathways available, helping individuals forge successful careers in the thriving world of data centers.

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