Can online training bridge the big data skills gap?

As data analytics become vital to businesses around the globe, companies are facing a talent shortage for these skills. This gap has led to more companies turning to online training to get both new and old workers up to speed quickly.

 bridge the big data skills gap in IT careers

The amount of data generated in the enterprise today is staggering and organizations continue to struggle to find the talent to collect, maintain and analyze it. In 2014, a study by Wanted Analytics found that demand for computer programmers with a background in data grew 337 percent, but that out of the 332,000 computer programmers in America, only 4 percent had the necessary skillsets. As a result, more companies are turning to online training to help employees get up to speed on the vital skills that companies desperately need.

Catching up with online training

Nicole Hajdrowski is vice president of training and development at West Unified Communications Services, a company that offers online training resources that have been used to help bridge the skills gap when it comes to filling big data openings. According to Hajdrowski, online training has made all the difference. "Up until a few years ago we did all of our training live, we would bring them here to the office, we would disrupt their days, disrupt their lives and ability to work because we'd have to fly them all here to our HQ in Chicago, do a couple of weeks training with them, then send them back into the field." But five years ago, the company transitioned to an online training platform, and found they were able to get the same results, but without disrupting employees lives.

Whenever there is a shortage of certain skills, job candidates have the upper hand, and employers oftentimes find they need to accommodate more for these in-demand employees. And the competition for these candidates isn't an illusion; RJMetrics reported in late 2015 that 52 percent of all data scientists had earned their title in the past four years and that only 11,400 professionals identified themselves as a data scientist.

Colleges and universities are having trouble keeping pace

Companies don't have time to wait for a fresh crop of students to graduate with their PhD in data science. As with any new skill that grows in relevance faster than graduates are leaving school with the right degrees, it leaves companies with a shortage of qualified candidates. For example, the University of Wisconsin unveiled the first online Data Science degree program in late 2015 in an attempt to help bridge that gap. Similarly, a number of boot camps aimed at educating students in less time for less money have also grown in popularity. But until more programs are established and more students are enrolling, businesses will need to look elsewhere for viable candidates.

Dmitriy Khots, vice president of strategic analytic insight at West Corporation, a parent company of West Unified Communications Services, has firsthand experience using online training software to bridge the big data skills gap. He points out that with technical skills, especially big data skills, sometimes in traditional classroom settings students learn the skills just as soon as they become passé.

"The traditional brick-and-mortar schools are starting to understand that. Fundamental institutions such as Stanford and MIT with their highly competitive acceptance rates are doing something unprecedented -- they are allowing everyone to learn a ton about this stuff for free using the only means to provide such education - online," Khots says. Many universities, like MIT, have made courses available online, giving access to those who might not be able to afford or attend college, or who have already attended college and want to gain more skills post-graduation.

Online training can help cut costs

Khots says that online training can also be a cost-cutting measure, especially since the economic decline in 2007. Since then, companies have had to cut back on things like travel, which means cutting back on the number of employees sent out for training. But with online training costs the company virtually nothing; especially if they opt for free online training resources. This is especially true with global companies like West Corporation, Khots says, because the expense and logistics of flying employees out from another country can become costly and unwieldy.

Helping companies hire from within

Hajdrowski says he has also noticed an influx in companies using online training software to help boost internal employees into unfilled positions. Rather than look outside the company, businesses are finding candidates with the right backgrounds and skillsets to train on big data.

Khots has also recognized the value of online training for his team, especially as the necessary skills for big data change as quickly as technology does. "My team has been using online resources -- self-paced and instructor-led, as well as purely individual efforts through YouTube learning-- for almost a decade. I've been fortunate enough to have a few folks stay with me for this entire time and, of course, when we onboard new analysts, we provide internal and external training to get them up to speed on our technology. It is actually part of most of my team's job descriptions to keep aware of developments in new data technology," he says.

IT leaders need to start looking at alternative learning programs

In order to ensure that there are enough people who are capable in data science, more high schools and universities will have to consider how they teach young people the necessary tech skills. By instilling this idea of "unconventional" online learning -- which becomes more conventional by the day -- students will be better prepared for the expectation that once they enter the workforce, the learning doesn't stop. According to Khot, "We need to grow the next generation of analytics and big data experts and we need to start early. In sports, they say that an 8-year-old may already be too old to start in a particular sport in order to become a star athlete -- and I know that's a bit of an exaggeration -- but a very similar concept applies for STEM fields."

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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