EmployAbility is being relaunched to drive the visibility of digital and data jobs among students. As David Reed discovers, the very real threat of a skills shortage should see companies in this industry lining up to get involved in the initiative.
As this article was being written, the media was full of images of fresh-faced students jumping in the air to celebrate their A-level results and a place at University (or looking glum and pondering a career in food service). Each year, the same ritual is played out, usually accompanied by discussions about whether exams have become easier.
For the data industry, there is potentially a good reason to celebrate with those successful students this year. It is well-known that a skills shortage threatens the sustainability of the current boom in data and analytics which technology has not yet managed to fill. Looking at the 2015 A-level results gives every reason to be optimistic, however. Passes in Computing have shown the biggest rise of any subject, up by 29.1 per cent, while the number of students sitting Maths rose by 20 per cent. Overall, the volume of students studying Science, Technology or Maths (STEM) is up by 17.3 per cent since 2010, or 38,000 newly-qualified individuals.
Skills are only part of the story of how the data industry will sustain itself. Those students, both the ones going to University and others choosing a different path, need to be aware of just what this sector has to offer in terms of the job opportunities, career paths and salaries available. After all, a report last year from the Tech Partnership employers’ network and SAS highlighted that the UK is expected to create an average of 56,000 jobs each year until 2020 in big data alone.
So the timing is perfect for the relaunch of EmployAbility, originally an initiative of the Institute of Direct and Digital Marketing (IDM) and now a standalone operation within the DMA Group. Kate Burnett is its director, handling the programme’s P&L and planning its new look and purpose. “What we have been doing for the last ten or more years as part of the IDM has been raising awareness among the people running University and business school courses to help them teach in a way that is up-to-date, interesting and valuable to students,” she says.
Twenty institutions have been accredited by the IDM to incorporate the Certificates in Direct and Digital Marketing or Digital Marketing or its Awards in Search Marketing and Social Media into courses. Students on these courses can choose to enter an exam which gives them those qualifications, or just be assured what they have learned aligns with current thinking and practice.
For the last 18 years, EmployAbility has also run a national student competition. “We get a client to provide a case study and brief which teams of students respond to, acting like an agency and actually pitching to the client, its agency and the IDM at the end,” says Burnett. This will continue as part of the ongoing programme, together with the highly-successful IDM Summer School, which immerses 30 students in the world of digital marketing.
Burnett says a key goal for 2016 is to restore the Data Discovery Workshop, which ran in 2013 and 2014, but was dropped this year after a change in date led to problems with candidate numbers. Next year it will return in April and build on its former success which saw a significant number of participants finding employment in the data industry having attended the three-day event.
For A-level students choosing not to go into higher education, one option may be the creation of data apprenticeships (see feature on Nesta’s policy briefing on page 16 for how this aligns with its thinking). Involving commercial organisations, either as sponsors for the workshop or participants in apprenticeships, is a vital goal for Burnett and her team, with Lisa Turner focused on bringing in commercial companies as backers, as well as individuals under the revamped Patrons scheme.
The youth portal started by the DMA Agency Council which carries job opportunities and information about the industry will be redeveloped within EmployAbility as an online community. Companies will be able to post their jobs, internships and some content for an annual fee to help fund the portal. “Employers say there is a skills shortage for analysts which will get worse. Engaging with business in what we are doing will really pay off,” says Burnett.
Probably the most challenging task will not be involving academics or practitioners, but rather deciding on a new name. “There are a lot of programmes that use the term EmployAbility and give it different meanings which are not always about the skills our industry is looking for. So we will rebrand,” she says.
Fresh impetus behind the programme is likely to get a warm welcome across the industry. According to DataIQ CEO, Adrian Gregory, “what’s needed are trade and training bodies such as the DMA, IDM and techUK, along with specialist data organisations like DataIQ, working together to create much greater awareness in universities and businesses of the opportunities and needs for new data-driven skills. In parallel, we need to provide the additional skills needed for students to strive in today’s data-driven economy and to link the new, suitably-skilled and motivated graduates to employers - the organisations where these skills are most in demand.”
DataIQ’s own programme champions individuals who are demonstrating best practice in the use of data and extracting value for their businesses, such as with the DataIQ Big Data 100, the DataIQ Talent Awards, our other events and in research, publications and online. Says Gregory: “DataIQ intends to build on this going forward and integrate success stories with our help and advice on all aspects of data at dataiq.co.uk.”
Combining the demand from data-driven business with the supply of candidates from schools and universities, especially through the higher awareness of job opportunities and careers, should start to close that skills gap. This year’s A-level results suggest there is already a better understanding among young people of where their future value may lie.
Mark Wilkinson, managing director of SAS UK and Ireland, said: “It is pleasing to see a rise in exam entries for core STEM subjects like computing and maths. These provide a fantastic pathway to the careers that will stimulate and grow our economy. The need for a rich mix of science, technology and mathematically-minded talent is crucial to our competitiveness in the global information economy. The UK is the sixth-biggest digital economy in Europe, but to sustain that position, we must have a solid talent pool.”
He added: “There will be job opportunities for big data professionals, but that means we need to fill them! That’s why we need to continue to encourage take-up of STEM subjects. Otherwise, from a business analytics point of view, we are left with highly technical aircraft, but not enough pilots to fly them.”