Or Lenchner, CEO, Bright Data

The FE and Skills sector has a rare opportunity to strengthen its importance to the UK’s economic success over the coming years. Thanks to a combination of four factors, colleges and training providers are in prime position to become the engines that drive the UK’s development as a global leader in data – the foundation stone of the future economy. 

1. Fact: Data as an essential utility 

The first of these factors is the rapid growth of data as a basic utility. It’s an oft-quoted cliche that data is the new oil, but in actuality we should be thinking of it more as the new water. The days of data merely being a commodity that enhances business success have given way to an age of data as an essential requirement for doing business, driving important initiatives, and even saving lives. In our real-time economy, every business in every sector now relies on data in one form or another – whether it be the data generated through company activities and interactions with customers or the data accessed from external sources. 

This external, or ‘alternative’ data is increasingly relied upon to drive decisions. For example, recent surveys have shown how important alternative data is to finance professionals in guiding investment strategies and understanding economic social and governance (ESG) issues. Unsurprisingly, this reliance is driving rapid growth in the market for data – with forecasts suggesting it will be a 103-billion-dollar industry by 2027.  People working in just about every industry will need to, at the very least, have a basic grasp of data skills to get by in this working reality. 

2. A UK Government priority 

Wisely, the UK Government is seeking to prepare the country to thrive in this data-driven reality with the second factor that impacts the FE and Skills sector: the National Data Strategy (NDS). Published last September, the NDS outlines an ambitious plan for the UK to harness the power of data across every part of the economy and society. Built around missions to unlock the economic value of data and use it to transform public service delivery, the NDS places skills among its key enablers of success. As a UK-owned, industry-leading public online data-gathering platform, Bright Data has taken a strong interest in the NDS as part of the forum that has been convened by the DCMS to help guide its delivery. Building on the work we already do with academic institutions around the world, much of our support has concentrated on driving forward data skills and education. 

3. Employer demand for data skills 

This need for data skills is the third factor for the sector to think about. Alongside the most recent update to the NDS plans, the Government published a report that quantified the scale of the challenge that UK employers are facing in meeting the need for data skills. Based on survey research among thousands of businesses, the report found data skills to be in high demand but limited supply. It estimated that almost half of employers are struggling to recruit for those roles requiring data skills, with up to 234,000 vacancies sitting open. In the face of the apparently limited supply of new talent to be recruited, the report made the case for a push to upskill existing staff to plug the obvious gaps. Importantly, the need for data skills was not found to be restricted to specific roles. As the report states, 'While not every worker needs to become a data scientist, everyone will need a basic level of data literacy to operate and thrive in increasingly "data-rich" environments'. 

4. A transformative moment for FE and Skills 

This need to produce a generation of talent entering the workforce with data skills alongside ensuring those already working can nurture new skills is clearly aligned with the core purpose of colleges and training providers. The fact that the sector finds itself at a moment of change is the fourth factor presenting such an opportunity. Following the publication of the Skills for Jobs White Paper, a Bill is now going through Parliament that will put the sector on a stronger footing than it has been for some time. Chief among the changes it heralds is a greater emphasis on meeting the current and future needs of employers; a drive towards ever-higher quality of technical qualifications and more resources and flexibility for people to learn throughout their lifetimes. 

Making the most of the opportunity

So, as we have discussed, data is an issue that employers in every industry have to come to grips with. Furthermore, given the growing cross-sector need for data, it is the focus of a wide-ranging Government strategy. Consequently, there is a clear and quantified need to develop data skills (among those already in jobs as well as among youngsters looking to start their careers). Finally, we are experiencing a moment of change for skills policy. The combination of these four factors creates an opportunity that colleges and training providers should enthusiastically embrace. 

As a starting point, here are just a few suggestions to consider: 

  1. First, there’s a need for colleges and training providers to make sure that their own use of data is strong. They also need to ensure that the understanding of the multiple benefits that data can offer is more than sufficient. This, of course, means making sure that data is being effectively used to, for example, recruit and engage effectively with learners. Additionally,  teachers and trainers must have the right understanding of data and keep on top of how relevant industries are using it. 
  2. Second, all vocational programmes – whether directed towards data careers or not – need to incorporate an element of data literacy-building. It is hard to conceive of any sector that will not utilise data in some shape or form in the coming years. This means that all employees will have to have a basic degree of understanding about data, at the very least. 
  3. Finally, there needs to be a strong supply of data skill-building programmes available throughout the sector. This includes everything from data-focused technical qualifications to in-office training opportunities for upskilling employees. Making sure that this is the case needs to be a key priority at various points of collaboration with the industry over the coming years. Our global economy simply relies on that. 

Or Lenchner, CEO, Bright Data 

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