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Guest Column

Society’s demand for ‘big data’ creating shortage of skilled workers

By Guest Columnist JENNIFER PRIESTLEY, professor of applied statistics and data science, and director of the Center for Statistics and Analytical Services, at Kennesaw State University

Big Data has created a big employment problem for metro Atlanta – there are simply too many jobs in data science and not enough people. And the gap between supply and demand is getting bigger. Universities in metro Atlanta are filling that void, helping both employers and those who want to obtain those jobs.

A day does not go by that we don’t hear of, or read a news story related to, the topic of data. It seems that everyone is collecting data – everything from our Facebook posts to our energy consumption to the books we read. The data we generate, which someone else collects, has become a pervasive characteristic of our society.

This data tsunami is creating previously unforeseen opportunities for organizations, big and small, to improve the way they do business.

According to the global consulting firm, McKinsey & Company, the United States is facing a shortage of 140,000 to 190,000 people with the deep analytical skills necessary to translate all of this newly acquired data into meaningful information. And, where there is great demand combined with insufficient supply, there is an increase in price.

Jennifer Lewis Priestley

Jennifer Lewis Priestley

A salary study recently completed by executive recruiter Linda Burtch found that data scientists now command higher salaries than doctors or lawyers. Early career data scientists’ median starting salary was $140,000, with more senior data scientists earning a median salary of more than $230,000. By contrast, the average annual income for a lawyer in the United States was $131,990 in 2013, while doctors earned on average $183,940.

The analytical talent is hard to find. So, what options are available for organizations looking to hire these people?

Most organizations have two options – buy the talent on the open market or grow the talent. Buying (or renting) analytical talent from the open market is expensive. And none but the largest organizations have a sufficient training infrastructure to grow the talent in-house. But there is another way to grow the talent – and organizations in Atlanta have a particularly fertile environment to work with.

Companies are increasingly turning to university partnerships as the “farm system” for fresh analytical talent. After all, education and training are the core competencies of universities. And there are a few uniquely strong universities in Atlanta that are rising to meet the local talent gap.

Kennesaw State University’s Master of Science in Applied Statistics program emphasizes mathematics, statistics and computer programming, with a strong writing and communications component.

Private sector partnerships are a cornerstone of Kennesaw State’s graduate program in applied statistics. The curriculum is always pivoting to meet the needs of the marketplace, and what’s taught in the classroom is a reflection of the changing nature of data analytics in the private sector. Universities must look to the private sector to inform what is taught in the classroom.

Georgia Tech has launched a Master of Science in Analytics, again with a strong connection with the local business community. Other emerging programs in analytics are offered by Emory University and the University of Georgia.

“Analytics spans the fields of statistics, operations research, computing, and business,” said Joel Sokol, director of Georgia Tech’s graduate program. “The Georgia Tech Master of Science in Analytics degree is one of the few truly interdisciplinary analytics degrees that include all of those areas. As a result, our graduates will be uniquely able to think across the disciplines as they generate deeper insights into analytics problems”

Data is not going away – we’ll continue to tweet, stream movies and make credit card purchases. In fact, it is becoming more prevalent and the skills necessary to translate data into information are in huge demand. Atlanta is well positioned to weather the tsunami with a rich university farm system to recruit from.

Priestley spent 11 years working in private industry for companies such as Visa International and Mastercard International before joining the KSU faculty in 2004.

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