Could UK corporate education really solve data science skills shortage?

A lack of relevant skills appears to highlight a failing education sector

The British Chambers of Commerce, a bastion of British business interests since 1860, claimed in its UK’s Digital Economy report recently that a severe shortage of digital skills is hurting UK productivity. Three in four businesses, it says, are facing a shortage of digital skills leading to increased workloads on existing staff (52%), higher operating costs (29%), and difficulties in meeting customer requirements (28%). It paints a bit of a bleak picture and the UK is not alone.

Skilled coders and, to be more precise, data scientists are in short supply just about everywhere but in the UK there was supposed to be a central government drive to tackle the issue. The newly created Institute for Apprenticeships opened for business in April and will go some way to creating new opportunities for on-the-job training, but it will not solve the skills gap.

The Commons Science and Technology Committee, which last year warned that the skills gap costs the UK economy around £63bn a year in lost income, cautioned in a recent report that the UK government’s Industrial Strategy (released in January this year) did not go far enough in explaining how the skills gaps will be addressed. It has called for increased clarity in any subsequent paper. More talk, more policy proposals…

What these papers do not really address is the growing demand for data scientists. They do not provide practical solutions, which is what UK industry is crying out for before it falls behind to rival economies. The shortage is now, not in five years’ time. 

The attempts by some large organisations to take it upon themselves to tackle the skills gap issue is understandable. Such is the demand for skilled data scientists that courses are being created in universities and further education colleges by businesses to meet their specific requirements. Centrica, which provides data science courses and visiting lecturers at the University of London’s Royal Holloway College and Channel 4, which works with University College, London, Bournemouth University and Durham University on data science masters and PhD courses, are just two very good examples.

Joined-up policy

It’s not an entirely new concept of course. Businesses of all shapes and sizes and from a number of varying industries regularly collaborate with UK universities and further education colleges. In fact, fewer than five percent have no contact with outside businesses at all, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency. For the remaining 95 percent, the challenge is to make those links current and relevant, to product skills and knowledge that will support industry and improve society. So is it working?

Not according to Intern Tech, which claims that a survey of 2,000 UK adults found that 41 per cent of UK graduates fail to land relevant jobs after university and that 28 per cent deem their degree courses outdated in relation to the present-day job market. OK that’s not necessarily the fault of the universities themselves, as this could also come down to bad choices by students. There are plenty of potential variables in there but there is an underlying feeling that more needs to be done to increase relevance to the job market. For that to happen, secondary schools also need to get involved too. There has to be a more joined-up policy and a less rigid curriculum to allow for greater flexibility in teaching.

In the meantime, businesses are finding their own ways to fill the gaps. Big Data firm Teradata has recently partnered with SAID Business School (part of Oxford University) on its ‘Future of Marketing’ initiative, as the key data/analytics partner. NVIDIA recently announced it plans to train 100,000 developers this year — a tenfold increase over 2016 — through the NVIDIA Deep Learning Institute, focusing on AI and data science.

“AI is the defining technology of our generation,” said Greg Estes, vice president of Developer Programs at NVIDIA during the launch. “To meet overwhelming demand from enterprises, government agencies and universities, we are dramatically expanding the breadth and depth of our offerings, so developers worldwide can learn how to leverage this transformative technology.”

Analytics software firm SAS is another business looking to “combat the shortage of graduates with data science and Hadoop skills,” according to the company. It has partnered with the University of Stirling to deliver a Masters course in Data Science for Business, apparently the first course of its kind in Scotland. Developed in close collaboration with HSBC, the course is aimed at developing graduates with a highly sought after blend of data analytics, business acumen and advanced management skills.

“Analytics is becoming more relevant to our everyday lives and there is high demand for data science skills across all sectors,” says Dr Kepa Mendibil, course leader, MSc in Data Science at the University of Stirling’s School of Management. “We recognised that there are a lot of courses available that have a strong, technical IT component. However, there is a shortage of graduates emerging with the skills to apply the technical aspects of data science and use analytics to make sound business decisions.”

It’s a familiar story. Clearly businesses are trying to solve the problem before it gets untenable. If anything, it highlights the inadequacies of central government education policy. Successive governments have tinkered with education to the extent it is now a mix of models and plans and lacks real cohesion and understanding. UK teacher morale is low – there are plenty of recent studies – and we consistently reach these points where the country falls behind due to a lack of relevant skills. Surely now is a time to change? While corporate education may be a sticking plaster, a short-term fix for skills gaps, it is not a sustainable solution. The UK, like many countries, needs a data skills plan.