Is the data literacy skills gap leaving the UK’s AI future hanging in the balance?

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Employers have a part to play in ensuring the UK workforce is not left behind by the digital revolution. But what's the best approach to preparing employees for the future of work?

The Apprenticeship Levy has courted controversy among business leaders almost since the day it was first introduced.

It is disappointing to see the number of young people taking apprenticeships drop year on year, particularly at a time when it is arguably more vital than ever to ensure that the UK has access to a diverse talent pool of individuals to power Britain’s businesses forward post-Brexit.

Businesses say the Apprenticeship Levy is overly bureaucratic and does not offer enough relevant courses in STEM-related subjects.

Philip Hammond’s recent decision to consult business leaders on how to expand the number of apprenticeships available through the Levy appears to be a step in the right direction, and speaks to both the greatest opportunity, and one of the greatest challenges facing UK companies.

Embracing technology to fuel our economy

Technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning are opening up opportunities to transform the productivity and prosperity of organisations in every sector. The UK government has put investment in AI and data, while Gartner values the global market for AI at $1.2trillion. And that’s before we’ve really seen a mass rollout of the technology.

In a recent speech, Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Greg Clark made the comment: “We are at the cusp of one of the most exciting times in our lives and, if we get our strategy for AI right, then the UK will be able to reap the rewards for our economy for decades to come.”

It is essential that organisations across the UK have apprentice programmes that are delivering the skills businesses require.

It is difficult to disagree with Mr. Clark. But in our excitement to embrace AI, there is a danger that we focus too much on the technology itself and too little on what we actually want to do with it.

Building a tech-ready workforce

Significant investment is taking place in the core technologies which underpin AI. But our ability to harness the potential of these technologies will depend on a concerted effort by government and business to create a workforce capable of extracting value and insight from the data they produce.

A recent report by PWC found that 69 percent of employers will demand data science and analytics skills from job candidates by the year 2021. Yet according to a separate study only 17 per cent of UK workers can be classed as ‘data literate’, with a further 40 per cent feeling overwhelmed by data in the workplace.

Businesses across the UK are already beginning to feel the impact of the current skills gap. Average starting salaries for data analysts are rising steadily, fuelled by a relative lack of available talent in the face of surging demand. Left unchecked, this imbalance between supply and demand will rapidly become more acute.  

The World Economic Forum’s ‘Future of Jobs’ report identifies data analysts as one of the most in-demand job categories over the next three to five years. A separate study by Invest In Great Britain suggests demand for data analysts will rise by 243 percent in the next five years. That means finding somewhere in the region of 75,000 newly qualified data analysts.

Apprenticeships are needed to meet the demand for data analysts

Over-reliance on universities to meet this demand is both impractical and likely to be prohibitively expensive for all but a very few organisations. It is essential that organisations across the UK have apprentice programmes that are delivering the skills businesses require – whether that be cross training or supporting those starting their careers.

The reality is that almost every job function in every sector will be touched in some way by data.

Changes to the Apprenticeship Levy that make relevant skills more accessible across a more diverse talent pool are worthy of support. But we must go even further.

As new technologies become an ever more pervasive influence on the workplace, the reality is that almost every job function in every sector will be touched in some way by data. Everyone from the HR department through to the boardroom will need to be able to read, understand, and communicate data as information.

Taking a top-down approach

According to a recent study we produced, 83 percent of UK employees say they are required to use data on a weekly basis as part of their role, yet 49 percent say they have never received any form of data literacy training.

Altering the status quo will require a top-to-bottom approach, with training at every level to ensure data literacy becomes embedded as both a mindset and a core competency for every employee.

Capitalising on the opportunity presented to UK companies by new and emerging technologies will need businesses and the government to administer a combination of bold action and tangible investment. We all have a role to play in ensuring the UK and its workforce are not left behind by the digital revolution.

About James Eiloart

James Eiloart

James Eiloart is Tableau Software’s SVP EMEA. James has spent the past 4 years with Tableau leading the business in EMEA. 


With more than 28 years in the software industry, building and leading international sales teams and strong partner ecosystems, James has held executive positions in sales, channel, strategic alliances, and marketing. Prior to Tableau, James was SVP Global Sales at Alterian.  He has also served in executive positions at E.piphany and Remedy and crafted his sales skills at Compuware. 
James is a graduate of the University of Leeds and holds an BSC (Hons) in Data Processing. When he can escape the demands of his wife and 4 children, James plays golf, badly.

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