What lessons can be learned to upskill the UK’s workforce in data science?

The recent explosion in data, connectivity and computing power – combined with powerful, new analytics tools – has sparked huge interest in data science. In response, forward-thinking businesses are looking at how they can derive insights from big data analytics to better understand their customer base and give them a competitive edge.

This trend is leading to a growing need for skilled professionals who can come into the business; mine and interpret the required datasets, identify trends and patterns and gain deeper insights into their customers and organisation to make better, more informed strategic decisions.

In response to this growing demand, Britain is expected to create an average of 56,000 big data jobs a year until 2020. But, with big data talent in short supply in the UK, organisations are looking overseas to countries in Eastern Europe, as well as India and China to bring in individuals with the right skill sets. This leaves the UK in a vulnerable position – without home grown talent to nurture, we’re at risk of being taken over by the powerhouses in the East.

So what can UK organisations do to upskill their own workforces and ensure they can remain competitive in the global economy? Here, I explore some key learnings for British businesses to take.

Why the UK is facing a dearth of data science talent

Before we look at how to solve Britain’s data skills gap, we should first explore why the gap is continuing to widen. A report from Nesta found that potential new recruits typically lack the hands-on experience and the right mix of skills required for the roles.

Similarly, a survey from Stack Overflow found that skills such as HTML5, CSS, Python, Java, JavaScript, AngularJS, R, Hadoop, Spark, MongoDB and AWS are in short supply in the London area. Salaries may also play a part in helping to attract the right candidates. While the average salary for an IT developer is higher in London (£55,560) than Dublin, Berlin and Madrid, it is still considerably less than in the US (£66,400); and therefore, UK businesses should ensure they’re offering candidates a competitive salary and benefits package to attract and retain top talent.

Upskilling the UK workforce

In response, the UK Government is looking to encourage its next generation of workers to pursue careers in data science. For instance, the British Council recently announced that it will be launching 1,000 internships in India for UK graduates in conjunction with Tata Consultancy Services (TCS). This move that will see up to 25,000 Brits being taken to India by 2020 to gain work and study experience from experts in business.

For those employers who have started the hiring process, they should be looking for a combination of technical programming skills, experience of using analytical tools, expertise in modelling techniques, relevant industry exposure and strong communication skills. The most common programming languages used in big data applications are Java, Python, C# and R and therefore, employers should be looking for a good understanding of at least some of these for most junior-level candidates.

Principles to take from global data science markets

Looking further afield, the UK should take lessons from the data powerhouses to the East to nurture talent on home turf. For instance, India is one of the top contributors to open analytics competition platforms such as kaggle.com. This promotes quality talent, and should be considered in the UK to encourage further growth.

In addition, India’s outgoing graduate market is currently around 50 times bigger than that of the UK’s. Unemployed graduates in India are motivated to seek out and upskill themselves in disruptive technologies, such as data analytics. In turn, this provides them with better job opportunities than in the more mature markets. The UK needs to counter this by promoting education on data science and other disruptive technologies; adding more data skills to the National Curriculum and ploughing increasing investment into funding more university courses.

Looking at China, the market is strategically sourcing the support of global corporates in developing data analytics talent. For example, IBM committed $100 million to support China to nurture increasing numbers of data scientists. The UK’s agreement with TCS is a step in the right direction, but further collaborations with private sector businesses would drive more growth in this area.

Database technologies are where I see a lot of innovation taking place, with traditional databases being replaced with new offerings from players emerging from Silicon Valley in recent years. With such focus on this area, there’s never been such a demand for data scientists with the right experience and skills.

Now therefore, is the time for UK businesses to upskill their current workforces and attract new talent to ensure they can continue to compete on a global scale.

Bhoopathi Rapolu, Head of Analytics EMEA, Cyient

Photo Credit: Sergey Nivens / Shutterstock