What can universities do to fill the analytics skills gap?


Who do you want to be when you grow up? And can I offer you a suggestion?

Considering the huge shortfall in analytical talent we’re facing, we should be asking those two questions more often. Many of the people who are considering a change in careers or searching for their first career don’t realize there are rewarding – even lucrative – career opportunities in data analytics. What can we do to help them see themselves as data pros?

Dr. Michael Rappa is the founding director of the Institute for Advanced Analytics and a professor in the Department of Computer Science at North Carolina State University. Jennifer Priestly is a Professor of Applied Statistics and Data Science and the Director of the Center for Statistics and Analytical Services at Kennesaw State University. Both directors have strong opinions on how to provide the market with the type of graduates who can tackle the big data problems that change the world. (Sound hokey? Then check out Project Data Sphere and UN Global Pulse.)

Filling the talent gap isn’t going to happen overnight, but with a few purposeful steps we can make it happen. Here are a few of Priestly and Rappa’s recommendations:

  1. Teach differently. Priestly says universities need to innovate just as the private sector is. “We can’t teach the way we have always taught,” she says. “Universities need to use the new resources and tools and change their thinking to fit this generation of problems and this generation of learners.”
  2. Make the path clear. Universities can no longer assume that students will self-select courses that will help them match up to employer expectations. “We have to purposefully direct that path by changing course offerings, educate students on the opportunities and incentivize them to pursue that career.” 9North Carolina State University (NCSU) was the first to create an M.S. in Analytics.) Rappa says NCSU stopped thinking in terms of individual courses and developed a 10-month, full-time intensive curriculum. The cohort moves through the program together and learns as much from one another as from the course work.
  3. Look at the employer as the customer. In one of my undergraduate marketing courses, we were asked to research what universities could do to increase enrollment and improve student success. Our survey results were limited to a small segment of the student body, but it seemed conclusive that universities should treat the student and prospective students as the customer. Rappa disagrees (and I do now that I’m in the job force). He says universities will set the students up for success in the workforce by asking employers what kind of graduate will help them move their organization forward.
  4. Create team players. According to Rappa, the traditional response when an employer says that graduates are missing a skill set is to develop a course that teaches the skill. But with teamwork, that’s not really a skill you can learn without living it. “If you want team players, students need to work in teams,” says Rappa. He says that they are successful because they work together to solve a real problem from sponsoring organizations’ real data.
  5. Develop lifetime learners. Employers expect applicants to have knowledge of the current analytics technology, but they don’t expect or want them to show up on the first day knowing everything there is to know about analytics. What they want is someone who is curious and hungry for more problems to solve. Universities need to produce someone who can be productive from the start. You can do that by giving them interesting and challenging projects to work on – give a purpose to their learning.
  6. Partner with corporations to gain real – even messy – data. The answers to real-world problems can’t be found in the back of the textbook. Priestly says that universities should call on organizations to sponsor contests or give students the kind of data sets they can expect to see in their career.
  7. On-the-job training. Provide internship opportunities that introduce the students to real-world uses of analytics. Assign them to projects that capitalize on their creativity. Priestly says to encourage organizations to bring students a problem to solve. “It’s a heck of a lot cheaper than hiring a consultant firm and while you’re at it you will help create a pipeline of experienced talent,” she says.

Rappa’s message to universities, “Be bold. Break free of your comfort zones to educate students in powerful ways that justify the kinds of loans students take out ….  The message to industry is push back on universities in your area. Incentivize them to break free and offer new programs.”

Tags analytics

About Author

Waynette Tubbs

Editor, Marketing Editorial

Waynette Tubbs is a seasoned technology journalist specializing in interviewing and writing about how leaders leverage advanced and emerging analytical technologies to transform their B2B and B2C organizations. In her current role, she works closely with global marketing organizations to generate content about artificial intelligence (AI), generative AI, intelligent automation, cybersecurity, data management, and marketing automation. Waynette has a master’s degree in journalism and mass communications from UNC Chapel Hill.

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