From education to employment

If you want to understand the world (or why that goal was offside) you need a data analyst

Sally Alexander, Principal, Milton Keynes College

If you’re a football fan, and you hate VAR, don’t blame the tech, blame the humans interpreting the data. Passionate fan, Sally Alexander from Milton Keynes College Group says we’re all drowning in data and we urgently need to train more data analysts.

VAR is not to blame for your team’s misfortunes.

The Video Assistant Referee, to give it its longform title, is only a piece of technology.  It’s the people interpreting the data with whom there may be an issue – depending on which side you’re on.

As an Arsenal fan I’m enjoying my football these days, rather more than I have been doing for quite some time.  But what I’ve noticed is the degree of hostility from the terraces, and often from pundits and journalists, towards the technology, when really, it’s the people in charge of it with whom they need to take issue.

No, you haven’t started reading Match of the Day magazine by mistake.  It was watching yet another VAR controversy unfold that got me thinking about how much we all need to make more of our data.  As Colleges, we gather a huge amount of information from students, staff and parents through surveys and questionnaires, but barely scratch the surface of its value.  Why?  Because we don’t have the data analytics skills to reap the full benefit.

Companies, up and down the land, see the statutory obligation to gather information on their gender pay gap, for example, as a chore.  Yet having gone to the time and expense of collating all that data, they’re missing out on a golden opportunity to make the information pay.  Having it properly investigated and analysed could provide valuable insights around recruitment, retention and career development for their staff.

78% of central and local government decision makers believe the pandemic accelerated the adoption of new digital technology

Research from Virgin Media O2 Business and the Centre for Economic and Business Research (Cebr), found that 78% of central and local government decision makers believe the pandemic accelerated the adoption of new digital technology, including electronic data gathering, by about four years.  We in FE got to grips with Zoom and Teams, online learning, the automation of our processes, hybrid working and so on, far more quickly that we otherwise would have done.  Our laptops are bursting with accumulated data like never before.  We’re drowning in the stuff, but barely scratching the surface of its value.

There aren’t enough data analysts to go round

There’s a reason why we’re all missing out on this goldmine of data with which we’re surrounded.  Simply, there aren’t enough data analysts to go round.

The government admits that it doesn’t actually know how great the shortage is, but a policy paper from DCMS (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) published in May 2021 says, “Half (48%) of the businesses we spoke to were recruiting for roles that required data skills. The most common type of data role sought by businesses was a data analyst (12% of businesses were recruiting for this role)… one in ten (10%) were recruiting for a Head of Data, with similar proportions recruiting for a Data Manager (9%), a Chief Technology Officer (8%) and a Data Protection Officer (8%).”

At Milton Keynes College Group, in our South Central Institute of Technology, one of our most popular courses is for Level 4 Data Analysis.  It’s a sought-after choice for two reasons; firstly, qualified data analysts are in such demand that the employment prospects are excellent.  Secondly, the smarter companies are realising they can improve the skills (and the likely retention) of valued staff members by sending them to add data analytics to their existing skill sets. 

This has to be the key for maximising the use of what we have.  The DCMS paper quotes the seminal 2015 report from Nesta & Universities UK, Analytic Britain, Securing the Right Skills for the Data Driven Economy, where it states, “The data revolution has implications…for the entire workforce. We all need to become more data literate to operate successfully in increasingly ‘data-rich’ environments.”

Once upon a time, people who were fearful or suspicious or just plain didn’t like the idea of new technology said they would never work on computers and never use a mobile phone – and look how that turned out.  The same is now true of data analysis; not having some degree of skill in the subject will become as impractical in employment terms as the absence of GCSEs in English and maths.  And there’s another thing.  If as the government says, “the need for data skills is not only confined to people in specialist data roles; virtually all white-collar workers will increasingly need to have a basic understanding of data,” then why aren’t we teaching it in schools? 

There have been many calls for the outmoded IT syllabus to be made more relevant to today, so why not start with teaching the understanding of data?  This won’t just be good for business but also for democracy.  Politicians and vaccine deniers alike, smother us in statistics for their own advantage.  Wouldn’t it be good if we could all see through the numbers to what they really mean? 

The pundits love to say how having former players involved in making VAR decisions would significantly improve outcomes, using their experienced eyes to interpret more accurately what has taken place. 

How much more effective would the experienced pros in your organisation be, if they could combine that wealth of knowledge with the expertise to decipher the information at their fingertips?

Long live VAR – but in the right hands, of course. 

By Sally Alexander, CEO of Milton Keynes College

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