Why Higher Education Must Prioritize Data Skills
In an increasingly data-centric world, data skills — the ability to collect, analyze, interpret, and present data — have become crucial. From finance to healthcare, every industry recognizes the importance of data-driven insights. Amid this reality, higher education must rise to the occasion and prioritize practical data skills in their curriculum, notably for students in business fields.
The Relevance of Data Skills in Today’s Business Landscape
The proliferation of technology has transformed businesses into entities that thrive on data. Organizations leverage data analytics to gain competitive advantage, innovate, and improve customer satisfaction. Consider how JP Morgan Chase uses big data to identify real-time fraudulent transactions, improving customer trust and satisfaction. Similarly, pharmaceutical giant Pfizer uses data to improve drug discovery and development, potentially saving lives and improving health outcomes.
Furthermore, the demand for data skills is exploding. According to the Burning Glass Institute, a part of Burning Glass Technologies (a leading labor market analytics firm that provides data and analysis related to job market trends), jobs that require data skills pay an average of $20,000 more per year than jobs that don’t. Jobs requiring data skills are growing 19% faster than the overall job market.
The Current State of Data Skills Education in Higher Ed
Around the globe, higher education institutions are gradually incorporating data-centric coursework into their offerings. Whether it’s specialized data science degrees or individual modules within broader disciplines, the presence of data skill instruction is progressively more noticeable within academic settings. However, this progress hasn’t fully mitigated the persistent gap between academic learning and what the industry demands.
Several factors contribute to this gap. First, the theoretical emphasis of some university courses may not equip students with the hands-on experience necessary in the professional realm. While students may grasp statistical principles or theoretical aspects of data analysis, they might lack opportunities to apply these concepts in practical, real-world situations. Additionally, the speed of technological advancement in the data sector often outpaces academia’s ability to adapt, resulting in proficient graduates in outdated tools or techniques.
Another essential consideration is the observed lack of practical data skills—like data visualization, machine learning, and managing large data sets—in new graduates. These skills are highly sought-after in today’s job market. This state of affairs underscores the urgent need for higher education institutions to realign their approaches to better match industry requirements, ensuring that graduates are ready to face real-world data challenges as soon as they enter the workforce .
Supporting this observation, a study by the Business-Higher Education Forum (BHEF) found that employers see a lack of data science and analytics skills among recent graduates, impacting their job readiness . Similarly, a report from IBM projects a significant rise in jobs requiring these skills and underscores the urgency for academia to respond to this demand.
The Importance of Data Fluency for Business Students
Data fluency has emerged as a cornerstone competency in today’s data-rich business environment. Data fluency, defined as the ability to comprehend, analyze, and communicate data effectively, is particularly significant for business students. But why?
Business involves a complex network of variables that interact in real-time. Business students are often required to make decisions with direct financial implications, which must be made rapidly and accurately. The ability to interpret data quickly and effectively can mean the difference between a good decision and a costly mistake.
Furthermore, businesses today have access to vast amounts of data that can be leveraged to gain competitive advantages, identify market trends, and improve customer experiences. Business students who can understand this data and communicate it effectively are in a strong position to contribute significantly to their future organizations.
For instance, a marketing student with data fluency can analyze customer behavior data to identify trends and tailor marketing campaigns accordingly. Similarly, a finance student can use data to predict market movements and advise on investment strategies. This ability to harness the power of data is what sets data-fluent business students apart and makes them invaluable assets to any organization.
Confirming this, a study from Harvard Business School found that business students with robust data fluency skills secured better job opportunities and were more effective in their roles. They used their data fluency to make informed decisions, identify business trends, and enhance customer experiences, directly contributing to their organizations’ success .
Data fluency is not just another academic concept for business students; it’s a career-defining skill that can unlock immense opportunities and pave the way for their professional success.
Essential Data Skills for Business Students in the Modern World
Businesses are swiftly pivoting towards data-driven strategies, and certain data skills have become non-negotiable for business students. These include data analysis, data storytelling and visualization, statistical literacy, and data software and tools proficiency.
Data analysis is the cornerstone of any data-driven decision-making process. Business students equipped with strong data analysis skills can dive deep into complex datasets, decipher patterns, and draw insightful conclusions. This analytical acumen is especially vital in roles like business consulting, market research, and operations management, where data-driven insights can significantly influence business strategies and outcomes.
On the other hand, data storytelling and visualization skills convert raw data into compelling narratives and visually engaging formats. For instance, a marketing student can leverage these skills to transform customer segmentation data into visually striking charts or graphs using Tableau. These visualizations can then guide the creation of targeted marketing campaigns, effectively communicating the value proposition to key customer demographics.
Statistical literacy is another essential element in a business student’s skill set. With a strong grasp of statistical concepts and methodologies, students can accurately interpret data, evaluate business performance, forecast future trends, and make reliable predictions. This is particularly important for finance students, who can use tools like Python for financial modeling to predict market trends and guide investment decisions.
Furthermore, proficiency in tools like Excel, Tableau, Python, and SQL is invaluable in the modern business environment. These tools are widely used in industries ranging from retail and healthcare to finance and technology. Business students proficient in these tools can efficiently manage and analyze data, automate tasks, and make data-driven decisions, making them highly desirable in the job market.
All in all, these data skills do not just make business students more employable, but they equip them with the capabilities to drive data-based decision-making processes, which is a crucial element of successful modern business strategies .
How Higher Ed Can Prioritize Practical Data Skills
Universities can prioritize practical data skills by integrating real-world problem-solving exercises and projects into their curricula. They could establish partnerships with local businesses, providing students with internships and capstone project opportunities. These initiatives can give students hands-on experience with data tools and real business problems.
Universities such as Carnegie Mellon and Northeastern University offer models of successful integration of practical data skills into their curricula. Carnegie Mellon’s Heinz College offers a Master of Information Systems Management program that includes coursework on data warehousing, data mining, and business intelligence. Northeastern University’s D’Amore-McKim School of Business provides data analytics courses in its MBA program that emphasize the practical application of data analysis skills in business decision-making.
The Long-term Impact of Prioritizing Practical Data Skills in Higher Ed
The Long-term Impact of Prioritizing Practical Data Skills in Universities
Prioritizing practical data skills in university curricula can significantly enhance graduates’ employability and career growth. Hal Varian, Chief Economist at Google, stated, “The ability to take data—to be able to understand it, to process it, to extract value from it, to visualize it, to communicate it—that’s going to be a hugely important skill in the next decades” . This quote underscores the need for universities to place practical data skills at the heart of their curricula.
In conclusion, the increasing importance of data skills in various industries necessitates universities to prioritize these skills. By doing so, they can equip their students with the tools to succeed in the modern workforce and secure long-term career growth. Universities, students, and businesses must take the initiative to promote data literacy, preparing us all for a future that will only become more data-driven.
 “JPMorgan Chase using advanced AI to detect fraud” – American Banker https://www.americanbanker.com/news/jpmorgan-chase-using-chatgpt-like-large-language-models-to-detect-fraud
 “Artificial Intelligence: On a Mission to Make Clinical Drug Development Faster and Smarter: Pfizerr. https://www.pfizer.com/news/articles/artificial_intelligence_on_a_mission_to_make_clinical_drug_development_faster_and_smarter
 “No Longer Optional: Employer Demand for Digital Skills” – Burning Glass Institute https://www.burning-glass.com/wp-content/uploads/no_longer_optional_report.pdf
 Business-Higher Education Forum. (2017). Investing in America’s data science and analytics talent. BHEF. https://www.bhef.com/publications/investing-americas-data-science-and-analytics-talent
 IBM. (2017). The Quant Crunch: How the demand for data science skills is disrupting the job market. IBM. https://www.bhef.com/publications/quant-crunch-how-demand-data-science-skills-disrupting-job-market
 “How Data Literate Is Your Company? Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2021/08/how-data-literate-is-your-company
 “Master of Information Systems Management,” Heinz College – Carnegie Mellon University. https://www.heinz.cmu.edu/programs/information-systems-management-master/
 “Full-Time MBA Curriculum,” D’Amore-Mc
Kim School of Business – Northeastern University. https://damore-mckim.northeastern.edu/programs/full-time-mba/
 “The sexy job in the next 10 years will be statisticians,” Business Insider. https://www.businessinsider.com/why-statistics-is-worth-more-than-calc-2013-3
 “The Most In-Demand Skills for Data Scientists,” Towards Data Science. https://towardsdatascience.com/the-most-in-demand-skills-for-data-scientists-4a4a8db896db