Making the Numbers Add Up: Closing the Skills and Diversity Gap in Data Science

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In this special guest feature, Natalie Cramp, CEO of Profusion, looks at what businesses can actually do to solve the skills and diversity gap outside of just paying lip service, and how to get schools on board. Natalie is a digital marketing and start up operations expert. She has more than a decade of experience leading private, public and third sector organizations through significant periods of innovation and change. This includes creating and scaling tech solutions for government organizations and developing the digital capability of third sector organizations. Natalie began her career at Deloitte after graduating from the University of York with a degree in Economics and Politics.

The stark reality is that not enough women or people from minority groups – including lower income – are working within data science. Closing this gap isn’t just a moral question, or as some cynics would argue ‘virtue signaling,’ it is a commercial imperative. If these groups were better represented, it would go a huge way to closing the technical skills gap – ensuring the long-term viability of the sector. It will also help to tackle some systemic issues that have emerged such as bias within AI applications. Finally, it will aid innovation. The greater the plurality of backgrounds, experiences and views – the better the ideas. 

Talking about these issues is obviously not enough. We need to act and act fast. Rather than waiting for government intervention or social change to do the job for us, the data science community needs to lead by example.

One of the easiest ways we can make a tangible difference, is to engage students from all backgrounds at an early age. Get them when they are young. Educate them on what a career in data science looks like, what the options are, what they need to do to make it and, I think most importantly, inspire them by showing them what the job entails.

According to besa, there are 1.5 million 12 and 13-year-olds choosing their GCSE subjects in the UK right now. The number of 16-17-year-olds in education is just under 640,000. These two groups represent our target market.

So how do we ‘engage’ them? First, we need to reach the schools. It is crazy to me that in Old Street, the UK’s tech hub, there are literally hundreds of startups within spitting distance of a single school of which nearly all have no official relationship or contact. What’s more, the students at these schools are among the most diverse and underprivileged in the UK. Put simply, the children we need to reach are on our doorstep.

Reaching out to these schools and offering to partner is a win-win situation. We can craft work experience programs that actually gives practical experience, we can do inspiring show and tell sessions, we can provide guidance and advice. Critically, we can also help educate the educators. The role a teacher plays in guiding a student’s future career can’t be overstated. However, it is a tall order to expect these overworked and underpaid individuals to know all the possible job options open to their wards. We need to give these teachers the tools and know-how to also inspire. We don’t know everything to do, every day in our jobs, but we have the network to help us – we need to create a ‘networked’ school.

If all sounds very simple, because it is. The best solutions are. We know it’s possible, because it is exactly what we have done. We partnered with a local school in Hackney and took on several young students for work experience. Our students met clients, were supervised as they did real data work and ended up making a tangible contribution. One student was so inspired he choose his A-Levels specifically to become a data scientist. I have never seen the team so engaged – they found it a rewarding and gratifying experience. They still ask for regular updates on how the students are getting on. And that is all it takes – we’ve inspired one student from an underprivileged background to enter a career they would never have considered. We offered teachers work experience – they were even more inspired than the students, and the ripple effect they can create is far greater than we, as a small company, can do.

I am, of course, not naive enough to think that what I’ve outlined will happen overnight. It takes time for companies to incorporate a partnership with a school because it’s not just about structuring work experience for students. It is also about having the right processes in place to offer the workforce enough support to make sure they can deliver on these promises.

You may scoff that the gap is so big that even if every data science company got onboard and did inspire a dozen or so students, the gap will just keep getting bigger. The numbers just can’t add up. True, but this is where we need to do a bit of predictive modelling. Who knows how these partnerships could evolve? Collaboration breeds innovation – and the one thing we’re good at as a sector is innovating. I believe that by taking the first step and actively engaging en masse, we will soon impart real tangible change. It will help the schools, help our businesses and ensure the future of data science. Like I said – win-win.

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