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Tackling the growing problem of ‘data illiteracy’ in the UK’s digital economy

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(Image credit: Shutterstock / whiteMocca)

One of the key learnings from this pandemic has been that the need for digital transformation and a reliance on technology in the workplace is not only here to stay – it has arrived in earnest ahead of schedule. A year on from the UK’s first national lockdown, the vast majority of businesses have become accustomed to countless daily Zoom calls, instant messages and virtual client meetings. However, simply being ‘used to’ the current state of affairs and our increased reliance on technological savvy does not necessarily mean we are fully equipped to excel.

In fact, according to research by Vanson Bourne the vast majority (92 percent) of senior enterprise decision-makers in the UK report that the COVID-19 pandemic has amplified the need for data-fluent employees in hiring practices. This staggering statistic, taken together with separate data indicating that 93 percent of companies report productivity being hampered by a shortage of data skills, should be cause for concern for business leaders and IT professionals. What exactly is going on here and how can we address it? The answer, simply put, lies in placing a new emphasis on teaching employees the value of data skills in today’s digital economy.

Data is shaping the decisions of the future

There is a clear and growing need for data literacy across the enterprise when it comes to hiring, demonstrating the value of training and reskilling in this area in the face of post-pandemic economic hardship. Our recent Vanson Bourne data also showed that 71 percent of enterprise decision-makers rated a sufficient level of data literacy as either ‘somewhat important’, ‘very important’ or ‘essential’ when considering hiring candidates for open positions in their company.

In October 2020, the World Economic Forum’s ‘Future of Jobs’ report found that technology adoption by businesses had been hugely accelerated as a result of COVID-19 and resulting restrictions, sending demand for cloud computing skyrocketing. With so many people already facing financial hardship in the face of the pandemic due to slowed economic activity, there nevertheless remains a real opportunity for thousands to reskill in the face of rising global automation.

The road to reskilling

For many years now we have seen a disappointing lack of focus on data skills in school curricula and university computing courses. Happily, many organizations are now making use of ‘converter courses’ aimed at fast-tracking thousands of graduates, the unemployed, or career changers into lucrative jobs as data professionals. While we can’t determine exactly how much the pandemic played a part in this shift, there is certainly a steadily growing awareness that data fluency is a non-negotiable asset for businesses.

But what exactly does this ‘reskilling’ look like? It should go without saying that the term ‘data skills’ encompasses a wide spectrum of expertise and capability. However, as any expert will tell you: you have to start somewhere. As automation continues to spread across industries, businesses must prioritize training staff to feel comfortable working with data no matter their level of knowledge. From foundational data literacy to advanced data science and AI, now is the time to begin gaining the necessary tools and knowledge for a data-driven future.

Although we at SAS have recently launched a free nationwide program aimed at addressing this very issue, numerous providers have sprung up in recent months offering similar services to suit people’s individual needs and circumstances.

The need for hands-on training

Although it is certainly true that no amount of training can prepare you for the real-world issues workers face in employment, those looking to embed or strengthen their existing data fluency must ensure they are doing so in an environment that closely mimics day-to-day scenarios. 

Given the fast-paced nature of the pandemic and the speed at which organizations and their employees have had to adapt, it is vital that any educational program centered on data literacy helps those looking to reskill do so quickly and effectively. This can be achieved through the use of interactive problem-solving exercises that push candidates out of their comfort zone.

After all, any successful data literacy course should be developed with one key consideration at its core – helping candidates secure long-term, in-demand employment. It, therefore, follows that prospective job- or career-switchers should be able to prove that they can handle real-world problems when it comes to an understanding of technology and data.

For example, employers could partner with training providers and educational organizations to submit actual case studies and business challenges they face, giving them the ability to select only the individuals that fared well in solving them. As much as possible, a collaborative approach will be needed between prospective candidates, training providers and employers in order to navigate a dynamic, largely unpredictable world of work in the years ahead.

Addressing the data skills gaps before it widen

The inescapable reality for businesses today is that the economy of the future will be digital. With many organizations scrambling to adapt to this change, it is of paramount importance that we don’t leave workers behind. By placing an emphasis on high-quality, hands-on data literacy training for those in need, we can work to close skills gaps across industries and provide equal opportunity and for all to have lucrative, enduring careers at the cutting edge of innovation.

Even at a relatively early stage of the pandemic last July, it was reported that 9 out of 10 (93 percent) said their workforce was not achieving optimal productivity due to a lack of data skills. This shows how training initiatives targeting these skills can not only help workers increase their employability, but also maximize workplace productivity and ultimately business success.

A win-win for all, but a lifeline for many

While it is clear that everyone can benefit from prioritizing data skills across the enterprise, some individuals stand to gain more than others. As of the middle of February this year, a shocking 11.2 million people have been placed on furlough by their employers as part of the widespread economic impact of the pandemic, representing well over a third of the workforce. With financial uncertainty and insecurity looming for so many, data skills represent a once-in-a-lifetime chance to change course and embrace a new discipline, no matter the starting point or level of knowledge.

With so many industries and companies being forced to re-evaluate the role that technology will play going forward, there exists a real opportunity for thousands to retrain for roles with data at their heart. Not only can grasping this chance bring significantly improved job prospects in the short-term, it also promises to set workers up for long-term job security, putting those looking to reskill on the path to a meaningful, fast-paced and dynamic career.

Roderick Crawford, VP and Country Manager, SAS UK & Ireland