Growing demand for data science leaves Britain vulnerable to skills shortages

09 May 2019

Demand for workers with specialist data skills like data scientists and data engineers has more than tripled over five years (+231%), according to a labour market analysis commissioned for Dynamics of data science skills, a new Royal Society report published today. Demand for all types of workers grew by 36% over the same period. 

If the UK wants to meet the needs of employers and remain a leading data research nation, the report calls for action in four areas:

  • Ensuring our education system provides all young people with data science knowledge and skills, which will require curriculum change within ten years  
  • Advancing professional skills and nurturing talent
  • Enabling movement and sharing of talent between academia, the public sector and business
  • Widening access to data in a well-governed way

Read the full report

From transport to banking to shopping, everyday activities are increasingly leaving digital footprints that are transforming the world of work. The pervasiveness of data is rewriting the rules of many professions, and employers are increasingly seeking workers who can help them make sense of it. 

Professor Andrew Blake FREng FRS, Chair of the Royal Society’s working group on data science, says:

“Capturing, interpreting and being informed by data can radically transform a business, so it is only natural that employers are catching on to the potential of hiring data experts. This report shows the British economy has high demand for people with data skills, particularly at the advanced end of the spectrum, where businesses are crying out for professionals to unlock the potential of new technologies like machine learning and artificial intelligence. Demand shows no sign of slowing down, and skill shortages that have plagued the economy for years will only get worse over time.

“Addressing Britain’s chronic supply issues requires radical action. Working as a data expert requires knowing your maths, coding and computer science as well as problem solving, resilience and communication. A-levels do not equip young people with the broad enough range of skills they need for these jobs, let alone the jobs that do not even exist yet, so overhauling the British education system is a priority.

“More needs to be done at universities too, where the intense hiring drives of tech giants increasingly lead to an exodus of researchers seeking better data, more computing power and higher salaries. More joint university and industry positions could help ensure that talented scientists stay in academia and train future generations to come. Universities may want think about embracing this joint model for data science and AI, to help secure their AI talent for the future.” 

High demand for data specialists

The report analyses the demand for professionals with highly specialist data expertise, which includes roles like data scientists, data engineers, statisticians, biostatisticians, economists and financial quantitative analysts.

British employers posted 27,033 job ads seeking professionals of this calibre between the twelve-month period of July 2017 and June 2018, the latest available data. In comparison, employers posted 8,157 job ads in the twelve-month period of January to December 2013, meaning demand for this category of data expert grew by 231% in just over five years.

Growth varied considerably across the UK, from 79% in Wales and 112% in the South East to 269% in the North West and 563% in Northern Ireland. The latest available data shows that the average publicly listed salary for these roles is £64,376, up 22% over the same period.

The analysis also looked at the types of skills most frequently required by British employers. The research shows that data science, scripting languages, big data, SQL databases and machine learning are the most frequently needed skills by employers, and increasingly required for data specialists compared to five years ago.

Overhaul education within ten years

The findings provide more evidence that the nature of work is changing, particularly due to new technologies like machine learning and artificial intelligence. To ensure young people leave school with the best possible start, the report calls for curriculum change in schools within the next ten years. This should include the opportunity to study a wide range of subjects to 18, and to develop valuable transferable skills such as communication, problem solving, and teamwork – well suited for the interdisciplinary nature of data science.

The report also recommends change at universities, raising concerns that salaries offered by large tech companies could drain teaching talent away from academia. Funding bodies like UKRI could support joint appointments for the UK’s most talented researchers to work in both industry and academia.

The data

To understand the scale of demand for data skills, the Royal Society commissioned labour market software analytics company Burning Glass Technologies to mine millions of job adverts posted on employer websites. The software collected all UK-based job ads posted on 7,500 online jobsites over a five and a half year period. The algorithm then extracted information about each job vacancy to detect whether it required data expertise, which includes roles as varied as marketing managers, risk consultants and business analysts. The research separately analysed roles requiring more advanced data skills, like data scientists and statisticians.

British employers posted 9.2 million job ads between the twelve-month period of July 2017 and June 2018, the latest available data. Compared to the 6.7 million job ads posted in the twelve-month period of January to December 2013 – the earliest available data – demand from UK employers increased by 36%. 

Of the 9.2m job ads, just over one in ten (996,000) required data expertise, with 345,000 based in London. Compared to the 736,611 job ads requiring data expertise posted in 2013, demand grew by 35%, similar to the rate of growth of all jobs. The report found growing demand for data expertise in every UK region, with Northern Ireland (+139%) and the West Midlands (+107%) in the lead, and slowest growth in the South East (+12%) and Scotland (+13%).

Read the full report and accompanying career case studies