Report urges data science course work for all undergraduates to close growing skills gap

A shortage of job candidates with fluency in data science and analytics is among the nation’s most yawning of skills gaps, one requiring substantial changes by higher education institutions and employers alike.

That’s the central finding of a new report from the Business-Higher Education Forum, a nonprofit membership group of Fortune 500 CEOs and college leaders, and PricewaterhouseCoopers, a large consulting and audit company.

An estimated 2.72 million new job postings in 2020 will seek workers with skills in data science and analytics, according to an analysis from Burning Glass Technologies that the forum and PwC commissioned. (The report defines data science as the extraction of “actionable knowledge” from data and analytics to be the synthesis of knowledge from information — such as creating visualizations from raw data.)

And in 2015, the report said, there were more job postings looking for these skills — 2.35 million — than the total number combined that were seeking registered nurses and truck drivers.

Data science skills are sought for much more than just jobs in computer science or technology.

The demand touches many sectors, according to the report, including finance and insurance, manufacturing, retail trade, and professional services. Data science and analytics-enabled jobs include human resources managers, business analysts, geographers and marketing managers.

The report compares this growth to the workplace revolution that began 30 years ago with the personal computer. Yet it identifies a “fundamental disconnect” between colleges and employers that threatens the nation’s economic competitiveness.

A Gallup poll, conducted for the forum, found that 69 percent of employers expect candidates with data science skills will get preference for jobs with their organizations. But just 23 percent of college leaders said their graduates will have those skills.

One reason for this gap is “an educational culture where both faculty and students devote little time outside of their own specialties,” the report said. So while data scientists with graduate degrees have the chops, business majors typically do not.

Likewise, employers have not changed their hiring practices to adequately respond to the disconnect.

“The time-honored practice of treating degrees as proxies for skill sets doesn’t work with data science and analytics,” the report said.

Colleges are adding degrees and certificates in this discipline, with 303 new accredited data science programs in the U.S. since 2010, a 52 percent increase. But most are too new for employers to get a good sense of the job candidates they produce, according to the report. Meanwhile, business schools offer few programs that include related course work.

“Business and higher education aren’t on the same page,” the report said.

Data science also has a serious problem with a lack of diversity. As is the case in STEM fields, it attracts relatively few women and underrepresented minorities.

Another concern, according to the report, is little outside financial support to expand data science training. Only 30 percent of college leaders said state funds meaningfully back their programs, the Gallup survey found, and only 2 percent said private money is a main source of support.

Multidisciplinary Solutions

The report includes several recommendations for colleges and businesses to close the data science gap.

One step is agreement on common skills students will need to prepare for jobs requiring some data science skills. The forum created such a profile for undergraduates, which describes the “foundational data science and analytics skills every graduate walking out of our colleges and universities should have.”

The group hopes colleges will use the framework to guide curriculum choices around course work for data literacy, communication of data and how students can link data to business value.

That means accepting that the demand in data science isn't just leading to the creation of new professional disciplines, the report said, but also altering established disciplines.

There is much work to be done if, as the report argues, all undergraduate majors should require some foundational knowledge of analytics and the data science process. For example, the Gallup poll found just 21 percent of college leaders reported that their institutions require data science and analytics course work for mathematics and science majors.

The forum suggests that more institutions follow the lead of Drake University, which offers a minor in data analytics to undergraduates in any field of study.

Likewise, the report includes ideas for colleges to try boost diversity in data science. They include training for faculty, teaching foundational skills in a broad number of degree programs and creating engaging introductory courses, such as breaking up a course into three tracks, with one that requires no computer programming background.

Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, said she backs the group’s suggestions.

“Programs in data science, like the ones recommended in the report, recognize the crucial importance of cross-disciplinary thinking and the need to close the divide between knowledge and experience in preparing all students to address the unscripted challenges of the 21st century,” Pasquerella, the former president of Mount Holyoke College, said via email. “They require integrative learning frameworks that adopt holistic, multidisciplinary approaches to addressing real-world problems.”

The report also calls for businesses to put their money where their mouths are by helping colleges develop multidisciplinary programs in data science.

It argues that the private sector should focus first on supporting applied and experience-building academic tracks, like Northeastern University’s master of data science, which offers students up to a year of pregraduation work experience through co-ops and internships.

“This report provides an unprecedented opportunity for collaboration between business and higher education,” said Brian Fitzgerald, the forum’s CEO. “Higher education’s appetite to engage with business is high, and I encourage business leaders to create more partnerships that integrate high-value skills into the educational experience.”

Source: Inside Higher Education – News

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