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Fighter pilots wanted in war on big data


We are in a golden age of big data and analytics in which technology enables retailers to be more lean, efficient and competitive than ever. There are companies with solutions that address everything from pricing optimization and marketing effectiveness to optimal modular assortments and cybersecurity threats.

With vast and rich troves of big data, powerful cloud processing capabilities and sophisticated analytics solutions, businesses of all types have the potential to become more efficient and more relevant to customers, unlocking new value streams in the process. The potential of the information and systems used to analyze it are enormous, but even the most cutting edge fighter jet is nothing more than a shiny piece of metal on a tarmac without a skilled pilot to operate it.

That is the current situation in which retailers and consumer goods companies find themselves with technology and capabilities available to them that have far outpaced the workforce necessary to derive maximum value from them. To address the situation, companies are left with few options. Either attempt to poach the existing analytics talent from competitors or vie for the limited talent coming out of many of emerging university analytics programs.

No matter how one views the current analytical talent landscape, there is a deficit between the number of individuals that retailers and suppliers are looking to hire and those that are available. In January of this year,, a popular job information site, identified the role of “Business Analyst” as the 14th best job in the United States.

They also listed 21,337 job openings for this position alone, not to mention the closely related fields of Database Administrator and Data Scientist, for which there were 9,790 and 3,449 openings, respectively. The gap between supply and demand is daunting, and the university programs that are training students to fill it are struggling to produce enough students. Two of the most established university graduate analytics programs, the University of Texas at Austin and North Carolina State university, are both producing highly capably, well-trained talent.

However, they are only able to churn out a limited number of students. Between the two programs, they were only able to push out 137 students, creating highly sought after and expensive graduates. According to Glassdoor, the average salary for a business analyst is $74,638, but the reality is individuals coming out of such programs as these can demand six-figure salaries straight out of school.

There are more and more schools creating graduate programs in analytics as demand grows from students looking to break into this booming field. Programs have sprung up in such top-tier schools as Louisiana State University, Northwestern University and University of Chicago; however, it is still not yet enough to meet the demand. Analytics companies such as SAS, my employer, have even started offering their software in an academic setting free-of-charge. These are available to both colleges and high schools to use in order to start grooming the next generation talent early.

However, it may not be enough. A 2012 Accenture study said, “[The] United States is projected to create 44% of new jobs for analytics experts but only 23% of the supply.” This helps explain many of the shortfalls that are seen between the number of applicants and the current job opening numbers. Naturally, such a tight job market requires retailers and suppliers to be competitive in what they offer prospects.

Big factors that make a company appealing are compensation, opportunities for advancement and location. Northwest Arkansas competes well on two of these three variables, but location remains an area of opportunity. Companies looking to recruit analytics fighter pilots to Northwest Arkansas have to recognize perceptions linger among millennials about the quality of life relative to a more dynamic urban area with potentially greater appeal to younger people.

While this is an issue for some, not all, it also has begun to matter less due to the nature of the analytics professions that allows for flexibly and decentralized work arrangements. While retailers and suppliers work through these challenges, the good news for the retail industry is that companies are uniquely positioned to offer analytical talent a variety show of sorts for them to explore when they come out of school.

There are few other industries that can provide a prospective employee the ability to utilize data to determine the likelihood of a breakdown in a private trucking fleet, while also challenging them to find new ways to isolate bad batches of produce or unauthorized network intrusions. Retailers, for example, function as financial service providers, manufacturers, insurance companies, medical providers and more.

All of these functions are substantially enhanced through the use of analytics and they are quickly becoming pillars of an evolving retail business. The business of pricing and merchandising are incredibly valuable core staples of the retailing business, but the opportunities at many companies are so much more than that.

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