Business leaders and educators convened for a Town Hall on the rise of data analytics and filling a growing need for new jobs and more comprehensive education.

The evening of February 26, the Wharton Customer Analytics Initiative (WCAI) and nonprofit WorkingNation came together at Penn’s Annenberg Center for Performing Arts for a town hall — “The Future is Now: Closing the Data Analytics Skills Gap.”

A gathering of top industry leaders and educators, the event reflected on the growth of data analytics and addressed next steps for employers and educators to maximize the field’s potential moving forward.

An introduction by founder and CEO of WorkingNation, Arthur Bilger, W’75.

The panelist lineup included representatives from Comcast, PwC, the Gates Foundation, Penn Health, Morgan Stanley, Community College of Philadelphia, General Assembly, School District of Philadelphia, Philadelphia Works, and the Wharton School. Allen Blue, the co-founder of LinkedIn, kicked off the discussion with a keynote on why the analytics skills gap needs to be filled.

“It’s been really encouraging to hear the excitement on the campus about data analytics,” said Steve Kern, deputy director of the Gates Foundation, prior to the event. “I think there could be some really interesting collaborations that come out of the Wharton School […] bringing all the different departments together to actually help work on these common problems.”

Rising Need for Data Analytics

While data analytics positions are relatively new to the job market, trends indicate that job opportunities will continue to grow. “In 2012, there were only 12 occupations with heavy reliance on data analytics skills comprising 270,000 jobs,” said Matthew Sigelman, CEO of Burning Glass Technologies. “Last year, there were 33, comprising almost one million jobs.”

Five panelists sitting on stage with the moderator with large blue and red event banners behind them
Panelists on stage (left to right): Ravi Kavikonda, Bhushan Sethi, Steve Kern, Kevin Mahoney (Penn Health) and Tsvi Gal.

Use cases for data analytics are vast. Morgan Stanley’s Chief Technology Officer Tsvi Gal called data analytics the “oxygen” of Wall Street. In the biomedical industry, data analytics can be used to understand the relapse patterns of multiple sclerosis patients and schedule preventative measures. Even industries that were previously seen as more qualitative, like marketing, now involve analyzing customer data.

As the need for data analytics skills increases, so does the need for useful data. “There was this big reluctance to share data,” said Kern, reflecting on the progress he’s seen in the nonprofit sector. “You can [now] build a trusting community of people who are sharing the data and know that it’s going to be used in an appropriate manner to help form decisions.”

Creativity, Critical Thinking, and EQ

It’s a common misconception that working in data analytics field requires a computer science degree. In reality, said leaders at the Town Hall, it requires creativity, critical thinking, and a high EQ — skills that may be more familiar to history or English majors.

People with different educational backgrounds can offer valuable skillsets to a data analytics team. Said Blue: “Data scientists who came from physics or biology discover and invent new things, whereas somebody who came from a data science program would use a tool they already knew about.” Firms need both kinds of employees.

Allen Blue talking and sitting in a white chair against a dark backdrop.
Blue in conversation with moderator Michelle Caruso-Cabrera, contributor and former chief international correspondent at CNBC.

Closing the gender gap is another way the field can develop. Currently, men are the overwhelming majority among computer science graduates and employees working in machine learning and artificial intelligence. “We have already detected bias [in this space],” Blue added. “We’re missing huge opportunities and we’re potentially inserting bias into the system that might come back and bite us.”

At the Forefront of Change

One way forward is by enriching data analytics education, which means building concepts into core curricula as early as elementary school and training the teaching workforce on teaching it. Melanie Harris, chief information officer of the Philadelphia School District, outlined the district’s K–8 digital literacy program, which introduces key analytics concepts like gamification of coding by the second grade.

Wharton Marketing Chair Prof. Eric Bradlow, W’88, co-founder of WCAI, cited Wharton’s specialized business analytics major, over 50 R or Python-based courses, not-for-credit workshops, and its top-ranked undergraduate club as a model for universities bringing analytics into their mainstream business curriculum.

Dr. Donald Guy Generals, Jake Schwartz, and Melanie Harris sit in white chairs against a blue backdrop.
(Left to right) Dr. Guy Generals (Community College of Philadelphia) alongside Jake Schwartz and Melanie Harris.

Above all, employers can be at the forefront of change by hiring people based on necessary skills, rather than pedigree.

Said Jake Schwartz, WG’08, co-founder and CEO of General Assembly: “I think in the future, we’re going to find really creative ways of putting together talent needs with potential alternative pools of talent, and figuring out how to use education as a bridge to get people [where] they want to be and where the companies really need them.”

Watch clips from WorkingNation Town Hall and hear from all the esteemed panelists.

Jonathan Lahdo, Elis Pill, and Gloria Yuen

Posted: March 22, 2019

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