Last Thursday, I played hooky. Instead of my usual morning research at EAB, I participated in “Crunching the Numbers: A Forum on Data Analytics and Tomorrow’s Workforce,” hosted by The Atlantic. As a self-proclaimed higher education nerd and budding tweeter, I thought I might learn some interesting insights worth sharing with EAB members via social media—and I was right.
The session consisted of various panel discussions with leaders in business, policy, and higher education, and provided a thoughtful overview of big challenges and opportunities for data analytics careers. While the event title referenced “tomorrow’s workforce,” employers today seek candidates to fill these roles, and higher education leaders must act now to prepare students for success in this emerging industry.
As Eduardo Padrón, the president of Miami-Dade College put it: "Data analytics is taking over the world."
Many members of the audience were live-tweeting the event (myself included), and their tweets provide additional perspective to four major insights I gleaned from the discussion.
Here's what I learned:
1. Data science is crucial to success in the workforce—any workforce
One of the first points made during the event was that more data has been produced over the last two years than all of human history. Think about the enormity of that statement—this is an incredible opportunity for every industry to operate smarter, better, and faster if they employ the right people with the right skills to make sense of the data available to them.
The opportunity is sizable, but several panelists explained that the requirements of data science are not one-dimensional: Success demands both analytic and communication skills. The most successful data scientists are able to explain difficult concepts to laypeople in a way that inspires informed action without creating undue confusion.
2. Higher education is well-suited to provide training, if willing to innovate
Knowing that the art of professional data science is to analyze data and think critically about the results, Katherine Rowe, Provost at Smith College, explained that students interested in this field need training in both the hard sciences and the liberal arts. This, of course, requires college administrators and faculty to break down silos between the two disciplines and find ways to work more closely together.
In addition to breaking down administrative silos, college leaders must consider pedagogical changes to optimize the learning experience for future data scientists. However, since the field of data science is evolving so rapidly, it can be difficult for faculty members to stay updated on the skills in highest demand and prepare students accordingly.
3. Progressive colleges are getting creative to meet industry demand
In the community college sector, Miami-Dade College is virtually synonymous with innovation. The community college leads the state with the only bachelor’s degree in data science, and at the event, President Eduardo Padrón referenced an ambitious plan at the college to require all MDC students to complete a course in data analytics to graduate.
At one point during the event, Freeman Hrabowski, President of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, asked the audience to raise their hands if by the time they reached middle school, they decided if they were a “math person.” Nearly every hand was raised, showing why college leaders must get creative to introduce students with “math-phobia” to data analytics. Smith College partnered with MassMutual to do just that, teaching the applicability of data analytics to liberal arts students in unexpected contexts, even Shakespearean sonnets.
4. Even in a world of big data, soft skills are in demand
Nearly every panelist mentioned the importance of soft skills for career success. Now more than ever, employers value empathy among data scientists. Robert Kempner, Executive Director of the Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs (ANDE), explained that anyone hoping to leverage data analytic skills to start a new business must also be adept at understanding others’ point of view to build a product or service that is truly valuable.
Next steps for college leaders
I applaud The Atlantic for hosting such an inspiring and informative event, bringing together leaders across industry, policy, and higher education for a productive conversation on setting students up for success in the workforce. If the purpose was to reshape thinking about the barriers and opportunities for preparing tomorrow’s workforce for careers in data analytics, The Atlantic succeeded in advancing the dialogue.
For any college leader interested in catching up on the conversation or continuing it at your own campuses, I suggest exploring these resources:
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