Data scientists: the who, why and how

Posted on 15 Mar 2017 by The Manufacturer

As manufacturing becomes increasingly digitised, the need for well-trained, capable data scientists will only increase, as Antony Bourne explains.

As an industry, manufacturing has come a long way in embracing new technologies such as big data, the internet of things (IoT) and robotics. This is great news for the industry as a whole, but what happens when you peer behind the curtain? Are the back-office teams in place to support the great movements the industry is making?

Antony Bourne, global manufacturing industry director, IFS.
Antony Bourne, global manufacturing industry director, IFS.

There’s a lot of talk around the skills shortage generally, however with trends such as IoT creating vast repositories of data, one role that’s particularly important for manufacturers not to overlook is that of the data scientist.

These professional data interpreters are able to mine only the most relevant company information, and deliver insightful feedback in order to improve a business’s competitive edge.

The problem is, despite the huge volumes of corporate data generated across a range of industries, such talent is in short supply. Gartner recently predicted that by 2020, 20% of enterprises will employ people to train neural networks, suggesting the demand for data scientists is only going to increase.

With 65% of children entering primary schools today set to work in roles that don’t currently exist, it’s clear to see that the skills landscape is changing rapidly.

This is particularly true in manufacturing, where trends such as servitization, automation and digital modelling are revolutionising traditional approaches. For these companies, hiring millennials isn’t enough, they need to have people on board who are equipped with the specific skills required to analyse data and make it meaningful. Organisations need to make a conscious effort to meet this challenge head on.

Data scientists: why do we need them?

As manufacturers go down routes involving IoT and big data, there is a natural need to be able to analyse that data and to think about how to get the most from it. With many of our customers the issue isn’t one of cost, but more to do with an antiquated mindset. Many manufacturers simply aren’t ready for the new way of looking at skills and job requirements that are associated with data scientists.

While they may be patting themselves on the back for the innovative new technology they’ve introduced in their factories, without a data scientist in place they’re missing a large piece of the puzzle.

Data scientists: how can we create them?

McKinsey & Company has reported that by 2018, around 160,000 data scientist job vacancies won’t be filled in the US alone. Clearly not enough is being done to create and nurture the talents required to become a data scientist in the wider industry, let alone in manufacturing.

One of our large manufacturing customers bought a training college simply to satisfy the lack of skills they were seeing in the industry. While it isn’t focused solely on digital skills, they are a key focus, and it’s a trend we’re starting to see throughout industry.

Not all manufacturers will have the resources, or even the desire, to buy a training college or a new company, however the industry is facing a skills shortage and there’s no easy way out – conscious decisions need to be made.

One step might be to create in-house digital apprenticeships which instead of teaching about heavy machinery, focus on digital skills to help them analyse the data being pulled in across the business. This could be a much better option for a lot of people rather than go to university and end up with a huge debt to pay back. People are appreciating that by getting an apprenticeship, they will get paid while getting trained in the appropriate skills.

Another way could be the introduction of comprehensive training for current employees who may already be engaging with relevant technology, but either not utilising it to the best of its abilities, or not harnessing and analysing the data produced in the most productive way.

Data scientists: how can we attract them to manufacturing?

So, while it’s great to have initiatives in place for training data scientists within manufacturing, companies must concentrate on actually getting these candidates through the door, and then keeping them.

One thing that we frequently hear is the image of manufacturing. Its “blue overalls” perception within the wider economy doesn’t match that of reality, given the impressive advances in technology across the sector. Nobody has yet tackled the rebranding that needs to be done to attract the best technology talent, including the likes of data scientists, into the sector.

One company alone can’t change the entire image of manufacturing. Manufacturing companies need to take a look at where their future workforce is going to come from and it’s important to address your prospective employees at every relevant level of education. Whether that’s going into careers fairs at secondary schools or universities and promoting what manufacturing looks like now with a focus on the need for data scientists. Once these relationships have been developed these are great places to advertise digital apprenticeships or future graduate schemes that manufacturers might invest in.

Finally, remember that even once you’ve hired the data scientists, the work doesn’t stop there. Employees with this particular job-set are in demand and it’s crucial that you make sure your workplace is as attractive as possible so that you retain that skillset.

Ensure your staff have the right work-life balance. Where possible, look to implement flexible working policies and keep your staff engaged with regular training. Remember that every time you implement a new technology you need to hone the skills in-house to make the best use of your new asset, much like you would with a new machine on the factory floor – technology is no different.