In big data, jobs go unfilled

Becky Yerak / Chicago Tribune /

Published Sep 5, 2013 at 05:00AM

Professionals in big data are big deals in today’s largely sluggish U.S. job market.

The demand for talent capable of gleaning useful information from businesses’ increasingly large and diverse data sets — generated by sensors, electronic payments, online sales, social media and more — is outpacing the supply of workers.

Take Enova International, which analyzes more than two dozen data sources to determine, in less than 10 minutes, whether an applicant will qualify for one of its three-year, $10,000 loans.

In the past three years, the growing Chicago online lender has doubled the size of its analytic team to 25 people, and next year, it would like to increase it by 50 percent, said Adam McElhinney, Enova’s head of business analytics. “There’s a shortage of talent that we’re looking to address,” McElhinney said.

By 2018, the United States might face a shortfall of about 35 percent in the number of people with advanced training in statistics and other disciplines who can help companies realize the potential of digital information generated from their own operations as well as from suppliers and customers, according to McKinsey & Co.

That deficit represents more than 140,000 workers, the consulting firm estimates.

Workers in big data are hard to come by in the short term. A recent survey by CareerBuilder — an affiliate of Tribune Co., which owns the Chicago Tribune and is a partner in McClatchy-Tribune News Service — found that “jobs tied to managing and interpreting big data” were among the “hot areas for hiring” in the second half of 2013.

“There aren’t enough of them. Period. End of story,” said Linda Burtch, founder of Burtch Works, an Evanston, Ill.-based executive recruitment firm. “The demand for quantitative professionals has grown so across industries that there aren’t enough kids coming out of school studying math and statistics.”

As a result, about half of Enova’s data analysts have visas or green cards.

Historically, Enova typically hired people with degrees in statistics, computer science and industrial engineering, but it has broadened its potential talent pool to include people with backgrounds in astrophysics and computational chemistry.

Enova, a unit of Texas-based Cash America International Inc., visits with Northwestern University and the University of Chicago several times a year, recommending that they adjust their curriculum to help turn out graduates with the skills for big data.

“Over the past five years, there has been a convergence of data analysis and computer science,” McElhinney said, noting that big data requires proficiency at both. “Five years ago, that was not the case.”

Big data pays well. Median base salaries for nonmanagement workers is $90,000, according to a 47-page Burtch Works report published in July that surveyed 2,845 of the quantitative professionals in the firm’s database.

Nearly 9 of 10 big data professionals have at least a master’s in a quantitative discipline such as statistics, applied mathematics, operations research or economics, according to Burtch Works.

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