Scotland plots data skills fightback against the robots

David Reed, director of research and editor-in-chief, DataIQ

In just ten years’ time, nearly half of Scotland’s workforce could face being replaced by automated alternatives. A forecast by the Institute for Public Policy Research Scotland said 46% of jobs - or 1.2 million employees - were at "high risk" of being performed by robots, rather than humans by 2030.

In the face of this change in the economic and social make-up of the nation, The Data Lab is looking to harness the very same tools putting jobs at threat in order to create new, better skilled alternatives. Working with Skills Development Scotland, it has recently put together a data apprenticeship programme. 

Meanwhile, the Data Talent Scotland collider event, run alongisde DataFest17 during March in partnership with MBN Solutions and FutureX, introduced hundreds of postgraduate data scientists and a similar number of data enthusiasts to a dozen Scottish universities and scores of businesses, all with the aim creating a steady steam of data-skilled workers for the future.

Joshua Ryan-Saha, The Data Lab“We realised there should be standardised and structured learning to increase the volume of data analytics and data science skills,” Joshua Ryan-Saha, skills manager at The Data Lab, told DataIQ. “So we developed a robust apprenticeship framework.”

At an inaugural event in 2016, the organisation hosted commercial companies to encourage them to think about training apprentices, as well as colleges who could become training providers, he explained. Six providers are now in place in Scotland with a target of supporting 100 apprentices by the end of this year. 

“At graduate level, there is nothing there yet, but we are confident we can achieve a graduate data apprenticeship framework by early 2018,” said Ryan-Saha. Growing demand for higher-end, work-based learning has persuaded The Data Lab to pursue this route. It already funds 130 Masters students who get three-month placements in companies. “That is fulfilling the need for people to come and learn about data in a work-based learning environment,” he noted.

Viewed from the employers’ perspective, this focus on building a talent pool helps with The Data Lab’s remit to encourage companies to embrace data and analytics, thereby hiring more practitioners and ensuring students have jobs to move into. Apprentices and the intended graduate programme act as a two-way conduit, taking theory into the work environment during a two-year placement and returning practice back into the academic realm for a final year at university. “Modern apprenticeships are a way for companies to show that they are investing in the individual so the individual will invest in them and they can build together,” he said.

Scotland’s universities have recognised the opportunities to be seized by creating data analytics-oriented courses with high-end, project-based syllabuses. World-renowned centres of learning, like Edinburgh, Glasgow, St Andrews, Aberdeen, Heriot-Watt and Napier, lined up with others to promote their courses, especially the new range of MScs, to potential candidates as part of Data Talent Scotland.

Michael Young, CEO of MBN Solutions, explained why his company has been involved in this project from the outset. “We occupy a unique position within the ecosystem in which Data Talent Scotland exists. From an organisational perspective, we have spent the decade of our company’s existence at the sharp end of data talent, recruiting for some the most well-known and innovative brands in the data space today,” he said.

“We still operate as talent acquisition specialists for an enviable portfolio of businesses looking to establish or augment their data capability,” he added. “But we have also strengthened our own service portfolio with the addition of data consultancy offerings, formal event and meet-up group management and our deep experience working with universities and academics to help them transition students into industry effectively under our #MBNSkills banner.”

Scotland is in the enviable position of having a joined-up eco-system supported by Scottish Government funding as well as commercial partners, managed through a knowledgable and committed hub. It will be a decade before the impact on employment rates is truly visible, but the nation has at least started the fightback against the machines.

Director of research and editor-in-chief, DataIQ
An expert commentator on all things data, David has been editor of DataIQ since its inception in 2011.

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