From education to employment


Data is all around us in every walk of life. Capturing it is one thing, but interpreting that data so that it’s useful for the benefit of the public, or for the growth of your business, that’s something different altogether – that’s Data Science.

It requires a whole different skillset that goes beyond basic analysis – it’s more innovative and with an eye to the future.

Data science is an area of work that continues to grow massively, not just in terms of available opportunities, but also in terms of importance. So, for anyone looking for future career options, the world of data science is very much your oyster.

But five years ago a degree apprenticeship programme for data science didn’t even exist, and I’m proud to say that I’ve played my part in changing that. We needed to be more innovative in our approach, so we could identify new types of data, and be able to deliver at pace – something the ONS has been recognised for internationally during the Covid pandemic.

My role in our Data Science Campus sees me focus on improving the public sector’s skillset and capability, but since joining the ONS I’ve been interested to learn just how many organisations in the private sector are also utilising data science.

Back in 2017 I was lucky enough to be asked to lead the trailblazer group that developed the industry-led standard for what we now consider to be a ‘data scientist’ – more than 50 public and private sector organisations working hand-in-hand to ensure it was relevant for everyone. Among those were well-known brands that you perhaps wouldn’t initially think of as having an interest in data science, like John Lewis, Nestle, and Estee Lauder, to name just a few – but they all have customers and subsequently they all have data, and a need to find a useful story within that.

As a result of that trailblazer collaboration, and just a year later in 2018, the very first data science degree apprenticeship standard in the country was published. It is now a fundamental part of our schemes for emerging talent at the ONS and Government Statistical Service, and the foundation for what other organisations are now offering apprentices in the field of data science.

It just goes to show that as leaders in an ever-changing world we need to have the flexibility to adapt to what’s going on around us and, much like the apprentices we take under our wings, have the confidence to do something new.

Creating an apprenticeship that benefits your organisation and provides opportunities within a particular sector is of great benefit to both the organisation and the apprentice. We created something that wasn’t in existence and are now reaping the rewards of having exceptional apprentices undertaking our programme.

To be at the cutting edge of forging a new career path for people to follow continues to be hugely rewarding for me, and something I regularly consider to be the pinnacle of my career. In the corridors of our main ONS headquarters in Newport (or in recent times via video conferencing calls) I still bump into some of the apprentices who were part of our first cohort. It’s quite staggering to speak to them now in fairly senior leadership roles and think of the progression they’ve made over what has been a relatively short few years.

Over that period the data science landscape has really changed too, with more government departments now recruiting data scientists, or using our apprenticeship programme to upskill their staff, so that they can make better use of their own datasets in a cleaner and faster way.

The great thing about a data science degree apprenticeship is that it doesn’t matter how old you are or what your background is. What matters is someone’s passion, their curiosity, and their drive to be part of the data science world.

Communication skills are also important. We’re looking for people who don’t just regurgitate numbers but can actually tell the narrative around them. We do an exercise around this at our interviews and that’s where you can really start to see if someone likes data, because they get energised by it.

The programme we’ve developed sees our Data Science apprentices do a Level 6 degree course over three years, and they put what they learn into practice. We support them during that time with suitable projects that embed the skillset that they are learning at university. That’s hugely important, and a great way to learn.

Some of our apprentices could find themselves working on the likes of the UK’s first survey to track the spread of a pandemic, or the once in a decade Census. It’s a very hands-on, practical apprenticeship we offer that benefits everyone.

As the employer we reap the rewards from this. The investment we put into our apprentices, and the value we give them, means they give us a high degree of loyalty, because they can see a clear career path.

This really is an exciting time for apprenticeships in general. Here at the ONS we have more than 150 currently in progress, across a variety of roles, with almost half specifically working with data.

I’m massively passionate about the work I do to give people the chance to forge ahead with their careers, and apprenticeships have proved successful time and time again.

I am incredibly proud of all of the apprentices that we have recruited. I watch them come in, and I watch them fly… and I have no doubt that they’ll all be flying much higher than me one day.

Alison Adams, Head of Data Science Capability at the Office for National Statistics (ONS)

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