From education to employment

Data skills and human qualities go hand in hand

Glyn Townsend

As the UK bids to be a world leader in the tech sector, it is important that the workforce’s skills are supported throughout education, with human qualities that complement technology being a key focus. Here, Glyn Townsend discusses the changing landscape of digital skills in the UK and how anyone can get access to them.

What we deem as an ‘essential skill’ when it comes to technology in work is constantly shifting to match the solutions we have available. From being comfortable using a basic computer, to understanding word processing and spreadsheet programs, to now – when the number of businesses beginning to capitalise on data and artificial intelligence (AI) in their day-to-day work is multiplying.

While data skills have been an essential part of select industries for some time now, they are beginning to be required further afield. These changes promise many great opportunities for the UK workforce to learn and grow, but we must support staff with the right foundation of supporting skills, such as communication, creative thinking, and understanding how to develop trustworthy AI.

At a recent event at Bradford University, my colleague Mark Thundercliffe, senior banking advisor to SAS, told an audience of more than 100 applied AI and data analytics students they have “a role and a responsibility to make sure they are knowledgeable, reliable, and use their skills for good purposes” as they embark on careers in technology.

This sums up how the future landscape of our data skills education should look – while we need the pure data skills to do the ‘mechanics’ of analytics and data science work, it’s important to remember an underpinning of human skills and understanding to ensure that as data-driven jobs become more widespread they achieve the most good. 

The widening scope of data skills

In its 2020 National Data Strategy, the UK Government recognised ‘data skills’ as one of four pillars needed to ensure that the UK benefits from emerging technology in the workforce. 

The breadth and depth of what we consider to be a basic ‘data skill’ is vast, yet is set to develop in scope as we take on new digital tools – understanding AI would not have fallen under this bracket 10 years ago, but could now be seen as part of widespread knowledge now, especially given the availability of tools such as ChatGPT.

While the majority of industries won’t necessarily need lots of staff with an advanced level of data science and related skills, we will see a larger proportion of roles across all sectors requiring a higher baseline of understanding.

Reflecting this, demand for new data roles is already changing in the UK, and in just the next two years we will have noticed the shift. The World Economic Forum predicted that data entry clerks and administrators will have declined in demand the most of any data job over the five years prior to 2025. Over the same period they predict the need for data analysts and scientists rising the most, highlighting this demand for a higher baseline of data skills.

The UK is already behind in the race to fill current data jobs with the required skills. The government has highlighted the potential supply of data scientists from universities is unlikely to be more than 10,000 per year — yet there are around 215,000 roles for hard data skills that need to be filled.

All industries require more staff with basic data literacy. The scale of work to fulfil this demand with new talent is becoming clear and it is important that we get this right when deciding how to use data in industries where usage ramps up.

Applying technology or data in new industries is not a one size fits all glove, which is why we need people from varied backgrounds with existing knowledge and skills specific to their industry to achieve the most benefit.

Pathways to data skills

Fortunately, the need for data skills is being recognised and work to meet it is well underway. Events like Bradford Connect show the commitment from business to connect with AI and data science students. But there is also an increasing number of ways to learn data skills at all levels too.

Universities such as Bradford and Surrey are doing great work. Through conversion courses and modules that weave in data skills in a way that is relevant to the core subject being studied, they are creating strong experiences for student development and preparation for the workplace. 

Ensuring courses in further education take the time to teach students from non-technical backgrounds how to apply technology and define and solve problems equips them with the tools to help shape the future of their respective fields. Similarly, the need to learn how to adapt to new technology is set to continue, and being able to do this is an important skill within itself.

Outside of traditional further education, there are an increasing number of pathways to learn data skills. For example, local council organised programmes are available that supply courses for all levels of knowledge – from how to use a computer, right up to the basics of web design.

Similarly, there are many free upskilling courses available for jobseekers run by businesses, such as the SAS STEP Programme. On top of being free, these courses have a huge range of options available that can take applicants from a very basic data literacy level right up to working on more advanced data science – depending on where they want to take their careers.

Having a variety of ways to access data skills for people from as many different working backgrounds only promises to boost industries and the UK economy as a whole. At the end of 2022, the UK tech sector was Europe’s leading ecosystem and was third globally for AI start-up investment. To maintain and grow our position as leaders in tech, we need to keep providing accessible pathways into the tech industry. As more sectors become entwined with AI and surrounding technology, we’ll see a natural increase in digital innovations, both within tech businesses and in other industries.

While it is hard to say exactly what the future of digital skills will require, we can be sure the UK has the potential to fulfil them. Through efforts in further education and within local communities to provide the needed digital skills, the workforce will be even better equipped to make the most of advancements in technology. However, education is only part of what’s needed – we must also ensure there is investment in regional AI Centres of Excellence and Incubation Hubs for new and emerging technology to fuel the future economy.

As more industries and perspectives enter the data science world, we will see more equitable career progression, more diverse thinking, and unprecedented progress – on top of encouraging even more people to be involved with data.

What is clear, however, is the need to leave space for human input – such as problem solving, creativity, and cooperation, as data skills continue to expand into education.

By Glyn Townsend, Senior Director, Education Services – SAS EMEA

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