Closing the Big Data Skills Gap Requires Educational Innovation

NEWS ANALYSIS: Teamwork and communication skills are as important as training in computer science, mathematics and statistics when it comes to big data analytics.

Here's the issue that the IT industry is already starting to deal with: Big data creates lots of new, well-paying jobs but in a digital update of the prime maxim of Adam Smith, the father of modern economics, demand will outstrip supply, some experts contend.

And it will get worse, because those newly graduated data scientists are too few in number and possess the wrong skills needed to fill that big data gap.

That's the scenario painted by analysts. As I blogged last year for InformationWeek after the Gartner annual IT symposium, "The Gartner analysts predicted that by 2015, 4.4 million IT jobs globally will be created to support big data with 1.9 million of those jobs in the United States.

That employment projection carries further weight when, as the Gartner analysts pointed out, each of those jobs will create employment for three more people outside of IT. However, while the jobs will be created, there is no assurance that there will be employees to fill those positions. [Gartner analyst Peter] Sondergaard provided the dour prediction that only one-third of the jobs will be filled" due to a lack of applicants skilled and experienced with big data analytics.

But wait. Time and again the economic lesson of supply and demand teaches that something will happen to close the gap. Allowing funded big data projects to lie fallow due to a lack of talent is leaving money on the table—something business executives just don't do.

One prototype solution that makes sense was offered up by Michael Rappa, the head of the Institute for Advanced Analytics at North Carolina State University, during a keynote presentation at the recent MIT annual Chief Data Officer and Information Quality Symposium July 17-19.

Rappa's credentials are impressive in the data analysis arena and include his role as a senior lecturer at MIT. As his LinkedIn profile states, "An accomplished researcher and instructor, my passion is to bring an entrepreneurial and forward-thinking mindset to innovation in higher learning. My current role is to prepare a new generation of data savvy professionals for leadership in a digital world."

Noting that the rise of data analysis (he doesn't like the term big data), is creating a "dramatic change in the underpinnings of the economy," Rappa set out to create a program that would provide students with the data skill sets that companies crave.

What he found in talking to business was, while some basic computing and statistics skills were needed, the ability to be a team player and communicate a project's progress and outcome were equal, or in many cases, more important than acing a résumé of academic courses. This is quite a statement coming from an academic. "We built an education program around that (teamwork, communication and data project) model," said Rappa.

The advanced analytics program is a 10-month, 9-to-5 degree program where students are placed into teams working on projects developed by private companies and public agencies. Unlike many academic programs, the projects are conducted under nondisclosure agreements and the results are not publicly published.

In an Advanced Analytics program, you would expect to read a lot of statistics regarding the outcomes of the 10-month program. You can read all the statistics here, but the students (whose backgrounds range from liberal arts to computer science and ages ranging from the 20s to the 50s) enjoy multiple job offers and $100K salaries upon graduation.

The program has potential but is only graduating 80 students a year in a field that requires many, many more qualified candidates. Here's the point: Academics have traditionally been one of the least innovative endeavors in the modern economy. In a tired but still true comparison, if the U.S. Founding Fathers walked into a modern-day classroom with its whiteboards and students sitting at desks listening to a teacher lecture, it would not be all that different experience from the 1700s.

That experience is changing with the rise of digital degrees and massive online education experiences. The Advanced Analytics program developed by Rappa represents innovation in a graduate educational setting that is typically slow to innovate. Now that he has shown that the prototype can produce successful data analytics professionals, let's see if he can move from prototype to production and fill that supply and demand gap.

Eric Lundquist is a technology analyst at Ziff Brothers Investments, a private investment firm. Lundquist, who was editor-in-chief at eWEEK (previously PC Week) from 1996-2008, authored this article for eWEEK to share his thoughts on technology, products and services. No investment advice is offered in this article. All duties are disclaimed. Lundquist works separately for a private investment firm which may at any time invest in companies whose products are discussed in this article and no disclosure of securities transactions will be made.