If you thought good plumbers and electricians were hard to find, try getting hold of a data scientist. The rapid growth of big data and analytics for use within businesses has created a huge demand for people capable of extracting knowledge from data.
The McKinsey Global Institute, the business and economics research arm of McKinsey & Co., has predicted that by 2018 the United States could face a shortage of between 140,000 to 190,000 people with deep analytical skills, as well as a shortage of 1.5 million managers and analysts who know how to use the analysis of big data to make effective decisions.
“With the rise of big data projects, more people are needed to gather and interpret data,” says John Reed, senior executive director of Robert Half Technology, a provider of technology staffing services.
Some of the top positions in demand include business intelligence analysts, data architects, data warehouse analysts and data scientists, Reed says. “We believe the demand for data expertise will continue to grow as more companies look for ways to capitalize on this information,” he says.
A survey by Robert Half Technology last year suggested most companies aren’t maximizing their data collection and don’t have the people in place to do so, Reed says. Of the 1,400 U.S.-based CIOs the firm surveyed, 76 percent said their companies weren’t gathering customer data such as demographics or buying habits. Among those that were gathering such data, more than half said they lacked sufficient staff to access customer data and generate reports and other business insights from it.
New data degree programs
Perhaps the best indicator of the need for these skills is the number of data science programs springing up around the country. This year new programs have launched or will soon begin at institutions including Indiana University, University of California, Berkeley, and University of Rochester.
“We have seen tremendous growth in the number of students taking courses in computer science, both computer science majors and majors in other disciplines,” says Henry Kautz, chairman of the Department of Computer Science at the University of Rochester. “Much of this growth can be attributed to the rising interest in data science and big data.”
The university offered an undergraduate data-science major as an independent studies concentration in 2013-2014 and will offer it as full Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Science programs starting in 2014-2015. “Our goal is to grow to 50 students in each graduating class within four years,” Kautz says. Core courses in the Rochester program provide a strong background in statistics, programming, algorithms and machine learning.
“Beyond courses, students in the program are encouraged to participate in undergraduate research projects with faculty,” Kautz says. “Both faculty and the university’s Career Center help students find paid summer internships in the industry. Based on our experience with our computer science program, we expect the majority of data science majors to participate in both research projects and summer internships before graduating.”
Graduates who understand fundamental methods of machine learning — or data mining and predictive analytics — are in high demand across all industries, Kautz says.
Some data science programs are being offered completely online. In January 2014, Indiana University’s School of Informatics and Computing launched an Online Certificate in Data Science program with a broad online curriculum that can be tailored to students’ interests.
“We see data science as one of the most important new areas to develop in this field in the last few years, and we have thus developed an ambitious new program in this area,” says Robert Schnabel, dean of the School of Informatics and Computing at Indiana University.
The school had 36 students sign up for the program within two months of announcing it. “Based on current applications and Web traffic, we expect this number to more than double for the fall 2014 semester and to eventually grow to 200 students,” Schnabel says. The school plans to offer a master’s degree in data science beginning in 2015.
“We see the data science job market requiring two types of professionals: those with deep technical skills, and managers and analysts with the knowledge to use the analysis of big data to make effective decisions,” Schnabel says. The program “has been developed to provide strong learning opportunities for students in both of these areas.”
These programs are needed to help narrow the skills gap “and enable people to tackle complex quantitative problems and drive innovation in the years to come,” says David Dietrich, head of the Data Science Curriculum at EMC Corp.’s EMC Education Services.
“Many of these schools felt the need to respond quickly and created certifications and degree programs based on existing courses across several disciplines,” Dietrich says. “Although this was an important step, schools will need to continue to develop new content to teach people about emerging big-data technologies and advanced algorithms that can be executed with these tools at scale as the industry continues to evolve in the coming years.”
Academic programs are useful in helping to meet the growing demand for these professionals, Robert Half’s Reed adds. “But much of the demand is immediate, so companies are looking at how they can either recruit these workers or help their current teams acquire the necessary skills through training and professional development,” he says.
Good data scientists often have training in computer science and applications, modeling, statistics analytics and math, Reed says. “In addition, they are savvy business people who know how to communicate with a firm’s leadership, and influence how an organization approaches a business challenge. Good data scientists don’t just address business problems, but also pick the right problems to address — those with solutions that will most benefit the organization.”
Bob Violino is an award-winning freelance writer and editor who covers information technology, consumer electronics and business topics. He has held senior editorial positions at publications including InformationWeek and InternetWeek.