Global opportunities open for local data science talent

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It’s a great time to be a data scientist in SA, says Shaun Dippnall, co-founder and CEO of Explore Group, noting the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on data analytics recruitment.

Dippnall was unpacking the topic of “how to encourage digital skills development in South Africa” at the ITWeb Business Intelligence Summit, held as a virtual event this week.

“COVID-19 has had two big impacts on this sector. The first is that local companies are suffering, they are retrenching and there are hiring freezes – they are not hiring like they did two years ago.

“The massive positive, which outweighs the negative, is that in a work-from-home world, you can do data science anywhere in the world. The South African market has dropped 30% but the global market has increased 10 000%.

“The market is incredibly exciting for young South African digital talent. Unfortunately, South African companies are probably not going to hire all of this great talent; they are going to be hired by US and Europe companies.”

Globally, the shortfall for data scientists is projected to be about 10 million.

Government and industry commentators alike have stressed SA’s need for data science skills to harness the power of data and come up with predictive models.

Key projects such as the Square Kilometre Array and MeerKAT require these skills to interpret and analyse the vast amount of data that will be produced by the radio telescopes.

In the wake of this demand, the South African government has also ambitiously committed to train one million young people in data science and related skills by 2030.

Data scientists Dippnall, Dave Strugnell and Aidan Helmbold founded the Explore Data Science Academy in 2017. It bills itself as Africa’s largest data science academy.

The academy offers both online courses and classroom tuition aimed at equipping students and working professionals with 'job skills for the future’. It is supported by a number of large South African corporates, and Amazon Web Services is its exclusive machine learning platform provider.

In January, the academy announced its first online course in data engineering in response to the increasing demand for data engineers in SA.

The Explore Group has also founded consultation arms Explore AI and Explore Fintech, which specialise in solving complex business problems by implementing artificial intelligence, fintech and data science projects for clients.

He explained: “Our big idea a few years ago was to see and think that there was this massive demand for digital skills growing exponentially locally and globally, and the supply of those skills, largely fed by local universities and technikons, wasn’t keeping pace with that massive spike in demand.

“We saw a massive supply and demand gap, and built this institution to deliver digital and data skills into the market – locally and globally. Our campuses across South Africa and into Africa, online and on campus have really validated the need for these skills and we’ve seen massive demand from the students we teach.

“A lot of those students and faculty members have gone on to build businesses.”

He pointed out that before the advent of the fourth industrial revolution, SA had one of the largest youth unemployment rates in the world.

One-in-two South Africans were un-or-under-employed, and that number has certainly increased dramatically over the last year because of COVID-19, said Dippnall.

“It’s a national emergency, and it’s clear from local and global research that if you don’t fix this massive mismatch of wealth, there will be massive civil unrest and problems going forward. It’s an economic and social imperative that we get this right.

“To survive as a country, we need to be globally competitive. In the digital and global world, you are competing against everybody and to be behind on this front, we will lose as companies and countries.”

He also indicated that a very different way of learning and hiring is emerging, which is powerful and needs to be accelerated in SA.

“Last year was very interesting for learning − very quickly, everyone was learning from home. This trend has been accelerated, and I think it is the right trend…and talks to being able to access the best teachers anywhere and at scale via online methods.”

Shaun Dippnall, co-founder of Explore Group and CEO of Explore Data Science Academy.
Shaun Dippnall, co-founder of Explore Group and CEO of Explore Data Science Academy.
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