Country is well positioned for future educational, employment and business enterprise prospects, writes Fiona Russell
Students clamour to study in world-leading universities and colleges; skilled workers want access to exciting, well-paid jobs; and company founders are keen to be close to the talent, resources and technology.
Right now, Scotland is the place to be for education, employment and business in a fast-growing data sector.
“Everything is here in one country,” says data industry observer Robin Huggins. “We have a pool of talented people, a culture of innovation, a strong focus on collaboration, the practical technology and the tools, as well as a great geography.
“It’s an attractive proposition to be part of Scotland’s data sector.”
At the heart of the burgeoning industry is Scotland’s acclaimed higher education system. Huggins, the director of academy and client services at data science and technology recruitment company MBN Solutions, says: “A large number of excellent universities and colleges across Scotland, including those in the major cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh, and also Aberdeen, Inverness and Dundee, equip people with the skills they need for careers in data science.
“In the first place, this attracts people to study in Scotland. Then, because companies need intelligent people, they set up businesses here to utilise this talent.
“In turn, universities and colleges have further adapted their courses to specifically cater for the new demands of the data industry.
“It’s why we see a concentration of data sector industries in the university cities.”
For jobs in the sector, including data scientist, analyst, engineer and developer, employees will need to be adept with technology, understand the logic behind numerical relationships, have a great attention to detail and be able to explain their outputs to non-technical people.
“Soft skills are commonly expected,” says Huggins.
Typically, people have strong academic qualifications, usually educated to postgraduate level, in a science, mathematical or computational subject.
It is envisaged that in the near future other positions will be filled by sociologists, psychologists and economists, to name a few specialisms, as the breadth of business possibilities and outcomes widens.
Demand for data staff is high. Huggins says: “Careers in data require a specific skill set – STEM subjects, for example, are highly desirable – and that normally comes from school education, followed by university.
“But because STEM subjects haven’t traditionally been undertaken by as many pupils in Scottish schools as the industry is now demanding, fewer students complete university with data industry specific qualifications.
“This is changing and over the next decade it’s expected to change still further, but just now it’s a simple supply and demand so there are plenty of jobs.”
Initiatives such as the Data Lab’s MSc placement programme, delivered by MBN, and the Direct Marketing Association’s (DMA) Creative Data Academy are examples of fresh approaches to addressing the need for new data talent.
Salaries in the industry are well above average. According to job market insights and trends website IT Jobs Watch, the median annual salary for a data scientist is £55,000 and for a data engineer is £47,500, compared with the national average of £27,953.
While both factors are obviously attractive to potential employees, there is another driver for a career in data. “It’s a cool career choice,” says Huggins. “Companies such as Airbnb, Uber, Skyscanner and FanDuel are examples of cool businesses that have changed the world using data.
“Data is also making a difference. Everything from healthcare to housing, from research to banking and from shopping to satellites, there are data people in Scotland making a huge difference to all of our lives.
“In fact, two of the largest data employers in Scotland are the Scottish Government and the NHS, with hundreds of data staff working within their organisations.”
Elias Mistler, who came from Germany to study for a master’s degree in data science at the University of Edinburgh, agrees that there are many opportunities for rewarding roles.
Now employed as a data scientist for Previse, in Glasgow, he says: “My work is fun and interesting. I help to create data systems that analyse the payment and processes of invoices and because of this we can ensure companies save money and therefore keep people’s jobs safe.
“I work with a team of very smart people and it’s exciting to be
problem-solving and making what I believe is a difference to the lives of other people.”
Scotland’s revolutionising data industry has a large space for people with entrepreneurial drive and innovative thinking.
Huggins says: “It’s a thread running through our culture. Throughout history, Scots have produced ideas and inspiration to solve problems. The growth in the data sector in Scotland is a natural consequence of this culture.”
It is one of the reasons Mark Hunter, chief data officer at Sainsbury’s Bank, based in Edinburgh, returned to Scotland in 2016 after many years working overseas, latterly in Australia.
He says: “I was excited by the job prospects and by the Scottish data industry as a whole. I believe Scotland is doing things differently, being more inventive, and this comes partly from a long heritage of Scots being willing to innovate.”
Hunter, who is also chair of the Data Lab – Innovation Centre, adds: “It’s an industry that is being driven by innovative universities and
colleges. For example, it’s notable that many universities in Scotland have been at the forefront of evolving specialist degrees and courses specific to the data sector.
“In addition, there are many forward-thinking companies and organisations, as well as clever directors and staff. It’s an exciting time in Scotland.”
Hunter also points to the benefits of the nation’s size and geography. Scotland is close to London and other major cities in England and well located in Europe, as well as having a reputable standing in the international community.
Hunter says: “In business, location is often highly relevant. Scotland is big enough to be significant on the world stage but small enough to be very collaborative across academia and private and public sectors.
“This has led to a strong ‘ecosystem’ where it’s easier to network and for ideas to flourish. It has a scale of community and organisation that is do-able.”
The attraction of studying, working and creating businesses in Scotland’s data industry is only expected to increase thanks to another valuable piece in the sector jigsaw.
Huggins says: “We have an abundance of developed – and developing – technology resources and tools, which are also very widely available and accessible. Scotland has seized the opportunity that the proliferation of data technologies has presented.”
The new Data Driven Innovation Programme being led by Edinburgh University, which forms a key element of the Edinburgh and South- East Scotland City Region Deal, will undoubtedly create a bigger catalyst for technology growth.
The programme will see the creation of five Data Driven Innovation “hubs”, including the Edinburgh Futures Institute and the Bayes Centre, underpinned by a new facility, the £110 million World-Class Data Infrastructure for the secure hosting and analysis of huge and varied data sets.
Many observers believe Scotland is in the midst of a new industrial revolution – and that can only be good news for workers and businesses now and in the decades to come.
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