Meeting society’s demand for data science

We need to take the issue seriously and with a sense of urgency if we are to address one of the major skill gaps of the age, says FutureLearn’s Kathryn Skelton

The Royal Society recently published a report, ‘Dynamics of data science skills’, looking at how the demand for data analysts, engineers, and scientists has changed in recent years, and how it varies across industrial sectors and UK regions.

In his introduction, Professor Andrew Blake, says: “Data science and engineering are growing fast and broadening in scope. No longer just the preserve of highly technical STEM- or finance-orientated roles in London, data science increasingly pervades modern business, scientific endeavour and public affairs. Children in primary school today will enter the workforce in roles that don’t exist yet because of the way data, and data-enabled technologies such as artificial intelligence, are transforming the economy. This is leading to a dramatic shift in the demand for data science skills nationwide, and the need for data scientists working across all sectors.”

The Royal Society’s analysis shows that over the last five-and-a half years there has been a sharp rise in UK job listings for ‘data scientists and advanced analysts’ (+231%). Indeed, according to the report, data scientist job-listings are up 1287% in that time and data engineers listings are up 452%.

“Data science and engineering are growing fast and broadening in scope”

Across all sectors, Blake continues, “those with a foundation of skills and capabilities need opportunities to deepen them and acquire new ones. Professional-level courses should be flexible and responsive. Training may need to be industry-approved and accredited, and coordination is needed between industry and universities. More informal mechanisms, such as online material, are also needed to allow people to (re)train through self-learning …”

At the heart of this and other recommendations is the report’s vision for a healthy data science skills landscape in the UK, outlined thus:

“The UK is a leading data science research nation with a sustainable flow of expertise. Diverse data science skills are integrated into curricula in order to develop future users, developers and citizens. Data science provides an exciting and fulfilling career choice. Data skills and appropriate infrastructure are available across sectors. Data science is applied to achieve broad societal benefit.”

It is hard to conceive of a single actor which could precipitate such change, but something of the potential for collaboration to do just that can be seen in the Institute of Coding (IoC). This £40m government initiative aims to give the UK an edge in the global digital economy through the delivery of face-to-face and online learning.

There is a dramatic shift in the demand for data science skills nationwide, and the need for data scientists working across all sectors. Professor Andrew Blake

The IoC is a collaboration between the UK government, more than 60 universities, big players in the tech industry, SMEs, industry groups, experts in non-traditional learning, and professional bodies. Led by the University of Bath, the pioneering consortium aims to strengthen the UK’s position globally in computing and IT, and address the UK digital skills gap.

FutureLearn’s involvement will see it deliver digital skills courses from the University of Leeds, University of Lancaster, Goldsmiths, and the Creative Computing Institute at the University of Arts London. These online courses are designed to focus on digital employability skills for people in the 18-25 age group, including courses – available later this year – designed to introduce learners to using data in the world of work.

And it’s not just the IoC: the National Centre for Computing Education (NCCE) is a £78m Department for Education-funded project established and run by a consortium comprising Raspberry Pi Foundation, STEM Learning and the British Computer Society. Though the NCCE is independent of the IoC, the initiative is complementary in that it starts at the beginning: educating teachers on how to deliver a “world-leading computing education” to children in every school in England. The NCCE combines face-to-face and online learning via FutureLearn, with ambitious plans to create 35 courses aimed at upskilling teachers on the frontline of computing education.

“Children in primary school today will enter the workforce in roles that don’t exist yet”

The centre believes that, through a combination of online and face-to-face training for teachers, it can realise the ambition of “every child in every school in England [having] a world-leading computing education”. Included in this will be free learning aimed at teachers, one of the first examples of which is Programming 101: An Introduction to Python for Educators, Python being one of the key skills identified by the Royal Society as a foundation for data science.

It is unlikely that online alone will be the solution to a lack of data scientists, with, 500,000 computer scientists estimated to be needed by 2020. Nor does face-to-face learning have to tackle the challenge alone. FutureLearn spoke to 300 employers with training and development roles within their organisations, and found that 65% of respondents deemed a mix of online and offline training to be the best way to keep pace with industry changes.

But, as with other arenas of education, it is impossible to see how we could train such high volumes of data scientists without the modality afforded by online learning, a solution as scalable as it is flexible.

Ultimately, the Royal Society report, while perhaps not fully articulating the potential of online learning in training data scientists, is a welcome intervention on a subject we need to take seriously if we are to address one of the most major, and certainly most pressing, skill gaps of our time, and realise the potential of data-enabled technologies in driving economic development.

Kathryn Skelton is chief strategy officer at FutureLearn


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