Data Scientists Needed to address Southern Africa’s Data Skills Gap

By Servaas Venter

Just one year ago, big data analytics was still not that well understood, with few businesses actively pursuing an implementation. Today, big data – and big data science – is everywhere

The data scientist is a key factor in enabling competitive advantage today and in the future. But businesses must move fast. Across southern Africa there is currently a big data skills gap that must be addressed if businesses are to have the appropriate resources in place for making sense of their data.

Data scientists gather whatever data they can and analyse it to find meaningful patterns and insights. They are more present than ever before in the business world as organisations look to realise competitive advantage.

The data scientist is a necessity for the modern business. Regardless of the industry, the business world is far more competitive than it has been in the past; if businesses do not analyse their data to the fullest extent, then they are not making the most of key competitive assets. Skilled data scientists are crucial if businesses don’t want to be left behind.

EMC is seeing greater demand for data scientists than ever before as well as a proliferation of universities offering degrees in the subject, but there is still work to be done. In fact, businesses are currently suffering from a skills shortage when it comes to data scientists.

Ventana Research found that about half of organisations across the globe do not have the right skills in place to use predictive analytics tools properly. Businesses will need to make up this shortfall.

In the short term, outsourcing will provide a solution. Data scientists will be able to earn a very good living as consultants, providing their expertise to several businesses at any one time. For the longer-term, though, businesses are also looking to academia to plug the skills gap, calling on scientists (usually life scientists and mathematicians) who are used to dealing with vast data sets in their studies and research.

When it comes to big data analytics, it is much easier to train a data scientist on the specifics of an industry than it is to train an industry business intelligence officer in the specifics of data science. While relying on data scientists from consultancies will be important over the next few years, some businesses have already found that their requirements are too large and need some form of in-house skill to support them.

A number of large enterprises in the marketing, healthcare/life science, media and online commerce sectors have already employed in-house data scientists. EMC has recruited more than 25 data scientists to help its customers better understand and exploit the value of their data.

However, the skills gap means that we are still a long way from having full data science teams within most businesses. Currently, in-house data scientists will more often than not provide oversight to analysts from third-party consultancies.

We expect the high salaries commanded by data scientists to eventually set market forces to work, and then we can expect to see the skills shortage addressed.

To assist this process, however, the industry must ensure that there are adequate training programmes in place, as well as supporting public sector initiatives to promote the uptake of advanced mathematics at schools and universities.

Creating this pool of data science talent will be vitally important for the long-term competitive health of businesses in southern Africa, and it is something businesses from all sectors should be working together to achieve.

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