The Big Data Skills Gap: Are Schools Preparing Students for a Data-Driven Workplace

Big data has arrived.

In almost every industry, businesses are generating and capturing exponentially more information than they were just a couple of years ago.  Unfortunately, the higher education system seems to have struggled to keep up in terms of preparing students for this new digital universe.

Demand for Big Data Skills

Data Overload

It’s tough for many of us to grasp the sheer magnitude of big data.

“Big data has brought attention to the fact that there’s a lot more data out there than most people imagined,” says Michaline Todd, CMO for MarkLogic, an enterprise database provider.  “Even with all the media hype, it’s hard for most business people to really think outside of their silo of data.”

90% of world’s data has been created in the last two years alone according to IBM.

Every day there are more than 400 million tweets.  YouTube uploads more than 100 hours of user generated video each minute.

The International Data Corporation is forecasting that we’ll see a 44X increase in data volume from 2009 to 2020.

Just look at the trend of search queries on Google for “big data”.

The problem with this tsunami of data is two-fold:

  1. It’s coming from a variety of sources, making it messy and unstructured.
  2. The volume makes it difficult to manage and analyze.

That’s whats led to the rise of what Thomas Davenport of the Harvard Business Review calls the sexiest job of the 21st century – the Data Scientists.

Demand for Data Skills

Jeanne Harris of Accenture hit it on the head that “data is useless without the skills to analyze it”.

Data scientists help organizations make smarter business decisions using data-driven insights.  They leverage a variety of tools, including business intelligence platforms and statistical models to improve business performance.

While the role of data scientists can be highly specialized and technical, there are broader marketplace demands for those who can understand, manipulate, analyze, and derive meaning from data.

A few years ago, being able to work a spreadsheet in Excel and create PivotTables might have been enough.  But just as the quantities of data have grown, so have the demands for Analysts.

Here is the problem: There just aren’t enough of these people to go around.

Unfortunately there is a shortfall in the labor market for these kinds of skills.

Data-science Job Trends graph

The US Bureau of Labor is predicting a 24% increase in demand for jobs with data analytics skills over the next eight years (IBM).

McKinsey shares that assessment, but notes that much of that demand will go unfulfilled, estimating that by 2018, the US alone could “face a shortage of 140,000 to 190,000 people with deep analytical skills as well as 1.5 million managers and analysts with the know-how to use the analysis of big data to make effective decisions.”

This will have serious implications to both employers and job seekers.

Not Just For Programmers & Math Geeks

Big data will have an impact almost every job function.

Marketers will be able to harness big data to target the right prospects with the right message, dramatically increasing campaign performance.

“Leaders in every sector will have to grapple with the implications of big data, not just a few data-oriented managers.”

-McKinsey Global Institute

Finance Managers will leverage predictive modeling to create dramatically more accurate forecasts and reduce financial risk.

IT Professionals will empower their employees with self-service access to data and reporting capabilities that a few years ago seemed unthinkable.

Those who choose to ignore these trends, do so at their own peril.

Preparing Students for a Big Data Workplace

Though there is a thriving demand for data savvy know-how, our higher education system seems to be slow to adapt to this new world.

Colleges and universities are hardly the most nimble of institutions, which make it a challenge to keep up with the rapidly innovative pace of business.

There are models for success, however.

This past fall, Babson College launched a Business Analytics programs for both undergraduate and graduate students in order to help students acquire the right skills for today’s workplace.

“There is a clear market need for graduates with data and analytics skill sets,” says Babson’s Undergraduate Dean Scott Moore.

The initiative is designed to give students the business analytics skills employers are demanding.  So far Babson has heard strong positive feedback for the program from recruiters.

A Corporate Push

Feeling the need for more analytics-focused talent, some technology companies have taken steps to close the skills gap.

IBM has launched an academic partnership program with more than 1,000 universities around the globe, focused on preparing students for a data-driven marketplace.  The collaboration has helped universities develop big data and analytics curriculums that include a mix of technical and problem solving skills.

The program includes partnerships with Georgetown University, George Washington University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, University of Missouri, Northwestern University, and many others.

SAS, a big data software platform, helped the University of South Carolina’s Moore School of Business jump start a new analytics initiative, with a similar mission of helping students become comfortable with data-driven decision making.

Though these initiatives are promising, more needs to be done.

In addition to the technical know-how, MarkLogic’s CMO argues that students need to be trained to ask questions and to think creatively in order to find patterns in data or uncover issues or potential new markets that were never considered.

Colleges and universities should make it a priority to ensure their graduates have these kinds of skills and training to in order to meet the demands of today’s labor market.  When that happens, everyone comes out ahead.

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