Data skills gap is exaggerated, say public sector data leaders

Toni Sekinah, research analyst and features editor, DataIQ

“There is a massive war for talent because everyone wants the best.” So said Kevin Fletcher, head of data at Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, acknowledging the heated competition among organisations that want to hire data professionals with the finest heads for figures.

However, he countered this by saying that he doesn’t think there is a real lack of skills in the market, making reference to the number of attendees at Big Data LDN where he was speaking on a panel. “We’ve got 8,000 people in this conference who all have some data skills.”

This may have been an ambitious estimate. Our DataIQ Leaders person on the ground of the conference estimates that 20% of attendees were students looking to make industry connects and a whopping 50% were recruitment agents, suggesting that in data and analytics, good candidates are highly-prized by data organisations and such large conferences are a good place for the two to meet.

“The perfect person doesn’t exist.”

old couple walking in the woodsJohanna Hutchinson, head of data at the Pensions Regulator, echoed Fletcher’s view during the panel: “I don’t believe it is the case that we are massively struggling for skills sets here. It’s just that you cannot get the perfect person.”

In her view, the problem is that those looking to recruit have overly-high expectations of the skills their new candidate should have. She said organisations will often have an impossible list of requirements for their ideal candidate, such as that they must be resilient, be able to do culture change, be able to speak to the business and, on top of that, have extensive technical skills.

“That is not a person, that doesn’t exist,” she said. The frustrating search for the data unicorn is something DastaIQ has previously reported on.

"You bring in a specific skill, then complement and supplement."

Hutchinson said that the way she built her “phenomenal” team was to hire people fresh out of university or from within the business for particular skills, and then help them to develop the skills that they are lacking.

For those who join her organisation without work experience, she recognises that she needs to help them develop business acumen. “You bring in a specific skill and a specific role, and you have to complement, supplement and work around the other skills.”

“Swapping skills builds successful teams in industries like this.”

Two men and one woman working together at meeting tableFor those who have come up from inside the organisation, Hutchison recognises the value they bring in terms of having background knowledge of the data, which can be quite complex when it comes to pensions. She then facilitates knowledge exchange between the two groups of people.

“You’re swapping skills, either in the sector knowledge or the technical skills that we bring in. That is how you build successful teams in industries like this.”

Fletcher admitted that, while at times specific specialised skills would be required, for example if AI algorithms and platforms are being built, on the whole data professionals need to have a broad skillset. He said: “When you look at the whole end-to-end stack, you need skills in everything from data ingestion, data management and data governance through to dashboarding, storytelling and BI.”

People who have experience in the old-school skills such as data warehousing and BI can “flipped” and become data specialists and data engineers. He also uses Hutchison’s techniques of re-educating those with technology and data skills “from a world gone-by,” and also has built a pipeline straight out of university.

“We need to elevate the professional development of the data leadership community.”

Fletcher stressed that it is important for the data and analytics industry to promote the professionalisation of the sector and professional development of data leaders. He stated: “I am passionate about building data leadership capability and the ability to build a business-led, then data-focused capability. It is really important that we elevate the professional development of the data leadership community.”

Johanna Hutchinson and Kevin Fletcher were speaking at Big Data LDN.

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