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D/NATIVES and data careers: A challenge for educators and businesses

Data-driven decision making is having a growing impact on profitability, lowering organisations’ operating costs and improving business resiliency, particularly as we begin to emerge from the pandemic. According to McKinsey, high-performing organisations are three times more likely to say their data and analytics initiatives have contributed at least 20 percent to EBIT. In fact, data and analytics are becoming a strong source of competitive differentiation and a catalyst for innovation.


This trend is likely to accelerate, with the future world of work being powered by an organisation’s ability to use data and analytics, and recognise, interpret and communicate insights based on data. However, this vision can only be realised through cultivating the right talent and developing employee data literacy skills in order to execute data-driven strategies and decision making.


Already, many employees really struggle to effectively manage and act upon their organisation’s data. Research from Accenture found that only 32% of business executives are able to create measurable value from data, while just 27% said their data and analytics projects produce actionable insights.


In the same vein, are the next generations of employees entering the workforce equipped with the required skills, and are they aware of the growing career opportunities in the data-led economy?


Our survey of over 3,000 16-21 year olds in the UK, US and Germany, combined with in-depth qualitative research of 18-25 year olds studying data-related courses, explored the attitudes and understanding that young people have towards data.


Findings reveal that young people—dubbed D/NATIVES in the survey—recognise the potential of data for their future careers, but at the same time they have a blurry understanding of data and what data literacy really means in practice. The study also highlights the critical role of education, with the majority of D/NATIVES noting that their schooling doesn’t go far enough in teaching them the data skills that they’ll need in the future.


Data literacy as an innate skill?


D/NATIVES have grown up with technology, and are incredibly comfortable using mobile devices, social media, and even technology that maps their daily lives, such as fitness trackers, smart watches and other wearable devices.


Since this segment of the population can often navigate new software far better than older generations, we could potentially assume that D/NATIVES possess innate data literacy skills necessary for effective data analysis and visualisation of trends.


However, D/NATIVES’ effortless use of technology in their daily lives does not automatically translate into ‘data literacy’ — the ability to read, work with, analyse and argue with data (as defined by MIT).


In fact, we found that just 43% of respondents consider themselves to be data literate. Equally concerning, 54% of respondents say they are either not that familiar, or not at all familiar

with the term ‘data literacy’.


While this could suggest a significant skills shortage, it could also mean that today’s young people are simply not familiar with business terminology and jargon around data. Either way, this data suggests there’s still lots to do to empower D/NATIVES to co-create the data-driven future world of work.


Data literacy as storytelling


Educators are playing a fundamental role in bridging the data literacy gap and equipping D/NATIVES with the skills needed to analyse and interpret data. But to what extent are we seeing this happen in practice?


Just 52% of D/NATIVES felt their education had given them the confidence and skills to use data. In fact, the majority of young people surveyed (55%) thought data skills should be more prominent in their education.


Initiating programmes that encourage data literacy from an early age that place data literacy into the curriculum are some of the key measures educators can implement to support D/NATIVES’ entry into the workplace of the future.


Teaching data literacy goes beyond just honing the skills related to understanding data though. It includes the ability to communicate, argue and tell stories with data. Adah Parris, futurist and cultural strategist, explains this further, “One place to start is by the recognition that as we create data, the data creates us. It is a non-linear process of inter and intra-connected storytelling.” In that sense, according to Parris, “the role of the educator of the future is not to merely pass on facts (data) and figures but to help D/NATIVES recognise the interconnectedness and transferability of skills across every aspect of their lives.”


Bringing data careers closer to D/NATIVES


While many of the young people we spoke to are aware that data is likely to play an increasingly important role in their future employment, it seems that there’s more work to be done by employers to ‘sell’ data-related careers. In fact, the young people interviewed during the survey have had little exposure to concrete examples of data careers.


In its Dynamics of data science skills report, The Royal Society stresses the importance of raising awareness of data science careers and career paths. Amongst others, it recommends employers to offer work experiences, host teacher Inset days and speak in educational institutions so that students, their teachers and careers advisers can gain an understanding of possible career pathways.


With educators, business leaders and young people themselves working together, we can bridge the data literacy gap and channel the D/NATIVES’ ambition and enthusiasm for learning into successful careers in the data-led economy. As the future data champions, they will not only help businesses solve their data challenges but also tackle some of the most pressing challenges humanity will be facing in the years to come — the pandemic, pollution and climate change.


By Helena Schwenk, Market Intelligence Lead, Exasol