GUEST BLOG: Growing Stem – tackling the data skills shortage

In this contributed blog post, John Brodie, CEO of Aquila Insight, discusses the importance of data skills and how science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) education can help tackle the big data skills shortage.

Big data will continue to play an even greater role in business and many companies that rely on data analysis across the UK will soon suffer from a recurring nightmare – a lack of employable people with sufficient skill sets under their belts to help analyse the vast amounts of data we’ll see.

Research by IBM sets the scene suggesting we’ll see the number of job vacancies for all data professionals increase by 364,000 to 2,720,000 in the run up to 2020 (figures based on the United States). Unfortunately we may not have enough skilled people to do these jobs.

With many changes on the horizon, the increasing lack of data-specific skills across the UK will start to look very interesting over the next few years, especially in the lead up to the likes of Brexit and the introduction of a more “millennial” workforce by 2020.

So if businesses are struggling to source the right people now, how will these factors further add to the growing recruitment issues and skills shortage many are already facing?

Invest in Stem

The Stem skills debate is ongoing – with no real resolution to the limited amount of investment in this area. So despite the fact that by 2020 half the work force will be millennials (in the US alone), if this reduction in Stem-related skills continues, new workforces will be unprepared for the complexities of digital roles now and in the future.

Recent trends, particularly in Scotland, have seen the removal of pure math and statistics courses. This is also coupled with the shortage of Stem teachers, with figures highlighting that Scotland is losing two science and maths teachers almost every week. We’re now starting to see similar trends trickle to other areas in the UK. It’s clear that businesses will face big challenges when it comes to recruiting the right analytical talent in the future, with the McKinsey Big Data Report of 2011 into the data analysis skills shortfall certainly showing itself to be true.

Data is growing at an exponential rate so this skills shortage will impact on businesses and of course their clients and brands. If something isn’t done now to help re-balance this skills gap, businesses will find it increasingly difficult to draw insights from their customer data in order to make better decisions. This will result in their competitors from countries which see education in math and statistics as a priority gaining an advantage. Businesses have to rely on the acumen and analytical skills honed in Stem graduates to help us help customers get more value and better understanding from data.

Invest in data education

As a collective, businesses need to start investing more time in coming up with innovative ways to talk to and inspire the next generation of students on their employment options with math and science-based courses. Our industry must start educating young students about the vast array of roles that a maths-based education will offer them.

Highlighting why working in Stem-based job roles is a good career and nowhere near as dull as it’s traditionally perceived, will be the first step in engaging those that have an interest in this area but are stuck thinking there’s just a few routes in.

You don’t have to go into an accountancy practice or crunch data in a bank – you can work with some cutting-edge retail brands or challenger utility or financial companies. In this digital age, all types of brands have a growing mass of data about their customers and more and more businesses are going to need smart people to help make sense of that data and enable businesses to make better business decisions.

Invest in talent

Into 2018, we’re going to see a continued trend towards technology becoming more commoditised and even cheaper. Talent and the investment in people will eventually become the most expensive and the most sought-after element for companies looking to understand their customer base truly. We need fresh thinking and better marketing to develop and entice the next generation of data analysts – including removing the perception that data analyst equals geek. Analysts should become commercial business people, interacting with clients and not stuck in a darkened room!

If we don’t get this right and start now, the bad dream will turn into a never-ending nightmare.