Being a data scientist is one of the hottest jobs in America right now. In fact, according to research, close to half of the 25 'best jobs in America' named are tech-related - and of these, data scientists sit at the top of the list.
However, when looking at the local landscape, is this reality mirrored here, especially when considering the growth of the digital world and its impact on South African businesses?
The answer is a simple no - not because the need for data scientists is not there. In fact, it is the complete opposite. There is a very real need for these unique technical skills in the local business market, especially when considering the amount of data businesses find themselves dealing with, and this data continues to increase significantly year on year.
Back to basics
Businesses are realising that, if used correctly, data actually adds massive value to the bottom line and results in better business profitability. However, the data is often too complex and disparate, and thus requires a unique skill set of a data scientist if the business wants that data analysed to ensure it can actually add value.
A data scientist is someone who has the ability to harness a wide range of skills to translate raw data into a meaningful end result for the business, as well as to communicate this result in a way that tells a story of interest to the audience. To do this, one usually possesses the following skills: technical IT, behavioural economics, statistics, visualisation, psychology and business knowledge.
Yet, SA still finds itself in a rather dire situation when it comes to these needed ICT skills. The results of the Johannesburg Centre for Software Engineering (JCSE) skills survey reiterates this sentiment, confirming the local shortage in ICT is still massive. Couple this with the fact that, often, technically skilled individuals are recruited to work overseas, and the situation is compounded. The result, unfortunately, is a negative impact on the business environment, as companies struggle to find the specialised personnel they need.
Given this, it is becoming clear that more in the way of skills development needs to be done. The JCSE survey is very clear about the fact that there is a need for industry and academia to step in and help SA build the skills needed to drive forward this new digital economy businesses find themselves operating in. Of course, it is great to see how schools and universities are starting to place a focus on programmes dedicated to IT skills development, but this alone is not enough.
From a corporate point of view, more companies need to get involved and become part of the solution. This can be as simple as supporting ongoing programmes already active in the market, which encourage young employees to study further to develop their technical skills capabilities - based on what the market requires. Alternatively, businesses can develop their own programmes or encourage young employees to study further, eg, part-time graduate or diploma courses.
Companies struggle to find the specialised personnel they need.
Those already in the field should speak to the company where they are employed to see if it's viable to create skills development programmes and technical cross-skilling sessions and workshops, to encourage continuous learning within this space. Data does not stop evolving, so neither should employee knowledge and skills. Continuous on-the-job training with strong mentorship is key to developing the crucial ICT skills needed locally.
Furthermore, the public sector also has a great opportunity here - where it could provide facilities, like training centres and bursary schemes (over and above the current programmes, and ones specially focused on ICT) to assist young professionals in becoming better skilled before - and when - entering the job market in the ICT space.
The need for specific ICT skills in the business world will likely not disappear anytime soon - rather, it will only grow as innovation in this space continues. As a result, a career in this path will serve an individual well.
Corporations in SA should support the development of niche technical skills through IT education and by getting involved in programmes to assist and promote such ICT skills development. Without this commitment, industry cannot ensure the technical skills needed by businesses today will be there in the future - these skills have to be developed if the generations to come will be able to make an impact.