Eight Tips for Closing the STEM Skills Gap in Data-Driven Organizations

Don Tennant

A 2012 report from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology found that the United States would need to increase its yearly production of undergraduate STEM degrees by 34 percent to match the demand forecast in the work force for these professionals. With the explosion in data around purchase history, customer experience and buyer interest that has occurred since that report was released, and relatively few data scientists who are qualified to understand it, businesses face a particularly alarming problem: We’re on the precipice of a data scientist recruitment war.

That’s the assessment of Shashi Upadhyay, CEO of Lattice Engines, a provider of predictive marketing and sales applications in San Mateo, Calif. “Companies will have to focus more heavily on recruitment in this area, and commit to spending more per data scientist, in order to pull top talent into their company,” Upadhyay said in a recent email interview. “For those data-driven organizations that don’t have unlimited funding to spend on recruitment and salaries, they will have to look at other ways to attract top talent in this area.

In order to compete in today’s data-driven world, companies need to focus their efforts on recruiting top talent, or risk falling by the wayside, Upadhyay said. “The war for data scientists has just begun,” he said. “Act now, or get left behind.

To assist companies in that effort, Upadhyay shared eight strategies for recruiting and retaining top data science talent:

  1. Help alter the perception of a STEM career. Consider opportunities to change young people’s perception of embarking on a heavily STEM-focused career, like inviting students to tour your company’s headquarters to show them what these types of jobs look like in the real world. You could partner with schools and districts to promote and support STEM education, and even offer internships to promising high school students.
  2. Recruit and hire early. A lot of excellent talent comes directly out of college—look for recent or soon-to-be graduates who have a propensity to learn and grow. Attend college job fairs to seek out graduates with STEM skills, and hold career information sessions on campus. It will be important to separate your company from the crowd of other organizations involved in college recruiting to help you compete for top talent. For example, you could bring specific data questions or challenges you want the prospective employees to solve, which can help make your company more memorable.
  3. Know where to look. Some universities have more available prospective employees to fill the STEM skills gap in your organization, so it is important to know where to focus your recruitment efforts. Look to recruit at universities with the most STEM graduates and consider offering remote positions or relocation packages that can help attract talent from those schools.
  4. Invest in advanced training. With the right mentors and business environment, today’s data-driven graduates can become tomorrow’s leading data scientists who have strong loyalty to the company that helped them grow. Providing your new employees with additional training and education programs to help perfect the relevant STEM skills they will need on the job will help you improve and retain these valuable employees.
  5. Demonstrate a data science culture. The first thing a good data scientist will listen for when interviewing is confidence that a company understands the difference between data science and data analysis. A common misperception is that data scientists just do analysis and reporting, when in fact it’s much more. A data scientist is part analyst, part artist, who reviews all of the data available in order to spot trends, and then paints informed conclusions and recommendations for their company. Businesses that understand this difference have a lead over those who lump all their data roles together.
  6. Cultivate creativity. Creating a data science culture is about more than just the right understanding of roles—companies need to create an environment that encourages curiosity and creativity, and empowers data science teams to explore all areas of the business. Enabling data scientists to continuously learn about your enterprise and industry will allow them to grow professionally, while enhancing your company’s bottom line through data-driven insights. Companies need to emphasize that the only boundary to the kinds of problems data science teams will decipher is their own imaginations.
  7. Enhance your business policies. To recruit eager employees and retain top talent, develop an engaging company culture that promotes a solid work/life balance. Encouraging employees to take time off and to unplug while away will help develop loyal STEM workers for your company. Employees who take time for their own personal needs will return to the office more stimulated, and ready to build creative solutions.
  8. Reward hard work. Ensure data scientists are given the chance to shine, both within the company and externally. New data-driven solutions within the company should be highlighted at company meetings and on employee forums. Embolden data science teams to participate in external peer events, where they can learn and showcase their own work. This also enables them to stay current with cutting-edge industry developments, which can then be implemented within your own company infrastructure.

A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.

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