The Analytics Skills Gap - Canadian Edition

By Cameron Dow, President of SAS Canada

We used to talk about “brain drain”—the flight of Canada’s intellectual capital to other countries, generally the U.S.—as our primary challenge to our technological workforce. While it became a byword in the 1990s, it was a phenomenon originally observed in the 1860s, when government agencies observed that many immigrants were using Canada as a stepping-off point to greener fields south of the border. Over the years we saw as many as 20 per cent of our graduates in what we now call the STEM disciplines—Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics—migrate to the U.S. after graduation for what they perceived as a more lucrative market for their skills.

Canada appears to have stemmed the brain drain problem, though economic issues could ignite it again. Regardless, it has exposed an underlying issue in the Canadian economy—that of a skills gap in STEM-related disciplines. Some estimates project a need for more than 100,000 IT-related employees to fill jobs in the Canadian economy. And there’s one field, one on which substantial competitive and economic advantage depends, that is beginning to stand out—that of analytics.

ANALYTICS IN SHORT

Analytics as a discipline is paradoxically complex and simple. It’s the science of finding relationships among data sets to report, visualize, and predict how those data sets interact. The complexity enters into the equation when we take into account the vast amount of data we create and capture. We once dealt with almost exclusively transactional data, that which was created and captured in a structured environment. We’re now exposed to huge volumes of unstructured data—social media and other text sources like e-mail; telemetry from vehicles and other equipment; geographic information from GIS and GPS systems; automated sensors that range from those that can detect whether a parking spot is occupied to a bar code that tells us where in transit a shipping load is. All of this data can help an enterprise optimize its performance, and that’s the science of analytics. The question is, how do we wrest this insight from this flood of data? And who will do the wresting?

ANALYTICS IN TRAINING

This has created the demand for a relatively new skill set: that of the data scientist. Since 2012, universities across Canada have been developing analytics and data science practices, often in concert with vendors in the field like SAS Institute Canada. And while these programs have been delivering data scientist prospects consistently, there are complicating factors. Data science is a burgeoning field, and demand is outstripping supply. Also, a data science program is itself demanding. Students are generally post-graduate, often, but not necessarily, with a specialization in statistics. Many are MBA graduates. This narrows the field of potential students considerably, and makes graduates not just scarce, but also expensive hires because of the demand.

These are the people who should be leading the strategic imperatives surrounding an analytical culture: defining value, defining metrics, defining methods to measure return. But an analytics culture itself demands that rank-and-file workers, not just strategists, to have the skills to drive value out of analytics tools.

THE CITIZEN DATA SCIENTIST

At SAS, we refer to this as the culture of the citizen data scientist. Analytics is not an ivory tower affair, limited to a department with a limited number of practitioners schooled and skilled in statistical science. The citizen data scientist permeates the organization and delivers operational insights to complement the strategic direction of the analytics department. These people draw on business acumen and operational experience to infer relationships among data sets. Who better than, for example, a supply chain manager to derive efficiencies in logistics?

It’s estimated that by 2018, the U.S. will face a deficit of 140,000 to 190,000 employees with deep analytical skills—those who drive strategy—and 1.5 million analysts to interpret and use those findings. The Canadian Big Data Consortium estimates Canada’s deep skills gap at as much as 19,000, and a gap of 150,000 in the analyst roles.

ADDRESSING THE SKILLS GAP

It’s a big job to provide the talent to drive an analytics-based culture to improve competitiveness, both among enterprises and nations. The pathway involves partnerships among analytics vendors, industry consortia, and educational institutions to prepare the incoming workforce for the world of analytics.

* In its report, Closing Canada’s Big Data Talent Gap, the Canadian Big Data Consortium recommends building analytical skills in the primary school age group through high school—the entire K-12 age group. SAS has been working with high schools across the country for several years, helping instructors teach statistical skills with cloud- and classroom-based toolsets. The STEM Fellowship, in partnership with SAS, runs an annual high school big data challenge, allowing students to work with huge datasets to help solve real-world problems for companies. This year’s challenge had students working with the City of Toronto’s open data sources.

* As mentioned, at the university level, companies have been investing in the development of analytics programs for several years. Critical to these programs is a simulation of real business environments, and opportunities to connect with companies seeking analytics talent through networking events, competitions and speaking engagements. SAS is helping university programs simulate real-world environments in High-Performance Computing, Risk Management, Anti-Money Laundering, and more. Students and researchers can duplicate what is happening in the business world and receive cutting-edge training.

* The consortium report asks employers to better define what they expect from data scientists. Improving labour market clarity helps providers of programs better target the skills companies need in the analytical age.

The road to an analytics-based business culture is a long one, one that begins in the formative years of the coming labour force, not just on-the-job training and university education. But it’s vital to our competitiveness as a country.

Cameron Dow currently leads the Canadian operations of SAS, the global leader in analytics software and solutions, responsible for all aspects of business operations and over 330 employees. Cameron is focused on driving revenue growth for SAS in the dynamic analytics solutions market while ensuring a high level of customer success and maintaining SAS’ position as one of the best places to work in Canada.

 

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