Teaching data literacy skills to unlock an economic recovery

On World Youth Skills Day, what better time to recognise the importance of data literacy education for future generations

Even before the pandemic, there were concerns about the gaps in education and training for children and young people. But in the words of UNICEF, COVID-19 has “exacerbated the learning crisis”. One in seven children globally have missed more than three quarters of their in-person education.

The ramifications are significant – for young people’s personal development, for their ability to acquire skills, and for the impact this will have on the global workforce and, by extension, the economy. So, it’s little wonder that many are warning of a generation lost to the pandemic and how this disruption might impact their ability to support the economic recovery.

As the UN noted ahead of today’s World Youth Skills Day (15 July), “In post-COVID-19 societies, as young people are called upon to contribute to the recovery effort, they will need to be equipped with the skills to successfully manage evolving challenges and the resilience to adapt to future disruptions.” This underpins why we must consider exactly what skills young people require and where the responsibility lies in ensuring they have the opportunity to develop them.

A new set of skills

For everyone else, the events of the last year have been a steep learning curve. Whether to take advantage of the unique opportunities of the time or simply ensure survival, businesses have needed to make faster decisions to adapt to the rapidly evolving situation. A crucial facet of this, from CEO down to entry level graduate, has been the ability to read and understand data. This trend is here to stay as organisations respond to longer-term changes in working practices and consumer behaviour. As the next generation of talent enters the workplace, they will be expected to respond to these changes by quickly interpreting information and making decisions.

Businesses are therefore increasingly relying on their capacity to realise the value of the data they hold. To do that, they need workforces equipped to read, understand, question and work with data – to be data literate. Yet the Qlik and Accenture Human Impact of Data Literacy report revealed that “only 16% of employees below the junior manager level felt fully prepared to use data effectively when entering their current role.”

This shows that what employers need and what new joiners can offer are often quite far apart when it comes to data literacy. Ultimately, businesses can provide their young employees with all the data in the world, but it’s only valuable when they know how to use it to inform decisions and take action.

Ultimately, businesses can provide their young employees with all the data in the world, but it’s only valuable when they know how to use it to inform decisions and take action

If people are entering the workforce ill-equipped, does this limit the ability of the business world to recover and build the resilience to adapt to future disruptions? And to fix this, do we need to look back in their development pathway to empower them with the necessary data skills?

Everyone’s responsibility

Those considering answers to these questions will naturally look to the education system. However, upskilling the workers of tomorrow is a joint responsibility taken on by educational institutions, businesses and governments:

  • Increase the focus on vocational training: there has long been a stigma when it comes to vocational training. In some higher educational institutions, the thought of providing students with transferable skills was at best an afterthought, or a side effect of an academic education. However, more universities, colleges and schools are realising that they have a role to fill in preparing students more directly for the working world. Part of this means formalising their approaches to remote or hybrid models of studying, which will be directly applicable to the professional environment should students be joining companies where they will be working both in the office and at home.
  • Building digital and data skills into the curriculum: then there’s integrating the digital skills needed into existing courses. These needn’t be a complete overhaul; just like many international business schools that teach their curriculum in English, allowing students an opportunity to learn a key global language before graduating, embedding data skills into the existing core curriculum will ready graduates for entering the workplace. Some institutions have made this a priority, such as Radford University, where its Center for Innovation and Analytics provides students across a range of disciplines with a grounding in the use of data – not just those pursuing technical degrees. Those on bachelor programmes are taught to identify, apply and interpret the results of analytical techniques to recommend action or guide decision-making, while those on MBA programmes learn to apply and compare analytical techniques to find patterns within data and make predictions that will support managerial decisions.
  • Continuous education for graduates: that said, the onus is not exclusively on the education system. One drawback to institutional learning is that curriculums and lessons are often many years in the making. While that’s fine for broader subjects and fundamentals such as mathematics and language, when it comes to more vocational training it can be an obstacle to developing relevant skills that can be deployed immediately at work. As such, businesses must also look at how they upskill young workers in data and other digital skills, whether graduates or junior hires that don’t have a relevant grounding in these areas. This could be through workplace training designed and developed in-house; it could also be a best-of-both model that integrates the excellence of academic learning with applied real-life situations. A combination of theoretical understanding and practical applications can ensure that young people become accustomed to the types of information they will encounter in the professional environment.

Equipping future generations

Every young person should have the right to a rewarding, enriching career. In an increasingly data-centric world, they need to be taught the relevant skills and enjoy the process – something that has been prevented by the pandemic learning crisis. This means ensuring that the education they receive, whether from formal institutions or on the job, evolves alongside technological advances and the speed of business decision-making.

To fuel recovery, the world needs people who can quickly understand information, adapt to changing situations and take advantage of opportunities as they arise. Although the path back from the pandemic will require many things, those countries that can equip young people with relevant skills for the modern enterprise will set a platform for productivity and economic growth.


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