The Analytics Skills Gap: Find & Keep Good People

A persistent skills gap plagues employers in all major industries, spurring initiatives such as SAS Analytics U, a program for developing the next generation of analytical talent. But we know the skills gap can mean different things to different people. Today we continue a series -- launched last year under the label The Dashboard -- that features interviews with those who employ, possess, and educate analytics talent.

We have plenty of advice to share. Links to archived Skills Gap articles are at the end of this blog.

Today's profile is of Kimberly Holmes, who is Senior Vice President, Strategic Analytics at XL Group, a global insurance company offering property, casualty, professional and specialty insurance products. Kimberly is responsible for the development of leading-edge analytical tools across the organization. SAS's Trent Smith interviewed her on behalf of All Analytics.

Find out how Holmes entices analytics experts, what she considers the essential skills, and why it is good to contradict conventional wisdom (like she did when she named her dog)!

Kimberly Holmes
Kimberly Holmes

What does the analytics skills gap mean to you and XL Group? Whenever you are on the forefront of innovation in your space there are very few people who have the exact experience and skill set you need. We do is two things. First, we identify what types of experience and skills are transferable and, second, we hire people that have them and invest in their professional development.

What can organizations do to attract, retain, or foster more analytics talent? What is your “pitch” when hiring new analysts for XL Group? We have found that three factors are key to enticing top analytics talent to join an insurance company like XL.

  • First, there is a real opportunity to make a difference. We haven’t even seen the "tip of the iceberg" of how analytics can impact our business, especially the commercial insurance business.
  • Second, the work that we are doing is creative and innovative. New risks are emerging all the time, along with more and more information to work with.
  • And lastly, we have executive support for the analytics team. Supportive leadership validates the value analytics brings to the table.

XL Group checks all three of these boxes. In addition, we have a team of people who are enthusiastic and know how to have fun with their work. That’s a big selling point to potential candidates. Who wouldn’t want to be part of that kind of team?

What role do you think analytics companies should play in helping to close the gap? Through internships, training opportunities and programs like SAS Analytics U, we as an industry can develop new talent and create career opportunities in analytics.

What advice would you give students or adult learners interested in pursuing an analytics career? My main advice for anyone wanting to pursue a career in analytics is to not forget the soft skills, or what I call essential skills. The technical skills are necessary but what will differentiate you and make you more effective are communication skills, a focus on business problems, and an ability to build trusting relationships with business partners. Technical skills are useless to a company unless you can translate them into business value.

How should organizations keep analysts challenged and engaged? Analysts are creative and want to be challenged. The keys to keeping them engaged are to give them a variety of interesting work that pushes their skills, and to provide them opportunities to work with business leaders. Working with business leaders will make analysts more effective through better understanding of what business problems they are trying to solve. It also gives them the ability to influence how their solutions will create business value.

What’s the coolest or most impactful thing you’ve done or seen done, using analytics? The coolest thing about using analytics is seeing peoples’ minds open up about what is possible. The surprise and excitement of seeing how new data and new analytical methods help businesses is exhilarating for both the business and analytics teams. For instance, when we identify a new risk factor for one of our underwriting businesses it means that the underwriters are more effective at risk selection than they were before. This improved segmentation of risks also means that pricing for insureds is fairer. It’s great to be constantly and pleasantly surprised.

What cultural changes are essential for analytics thinking to take hold in an organization? Cultural change has to start with the CEO and top executives. Decisions need to be made based on what we know, not what we think, so executives need to ask colleagues for data to back up opinions. Analytics also has to be a part of the everyday conversations as it won’t be successful if it is done “on the side.”

You have 4.5 lb Yorkshire terrier named Tyrannosaurus Rex, which is awesome, and ironic. Can you think of a time where analytics results surprised you, contradicting what was accepted to be true? There have been quite a few times when analytics results have contradicted common wisdom. I call this the holy grail of analytics because these findings are the ones that will give us the most competitive advantage.

Previous Dashboard Posts on the Analytics Skills Gap

  • Steve Doig, investigative reporter and educator at Arizona State University
  • Jeremy TerBush, vice president of global analytics for Wyndham Exchange & Rentals
  • MaryAnne DePesquo, a health analytics manager at BlueCross BlueShield of Arizona
  • Mark Malchiodi, a SAS programmer for a large insurance carrier
  • Tao Hong, lead of the Energy Analytics Research Laboratory within the Energy Production Infrastructure Center at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte
  • Allison Jones-Farmer, a professor at Miami University of Ohio
  • John Taylor, data analyst for the Inland Fisheries Division of Texas Parks and Wildlife

James M. Connolly, Editor of All Analytics

Jim Connolly is a versatile and experienced technology journalist who has reported on IT trends for more than two decades. As editor of All Analytics he writes about the move to big data analytics and data-driven decision making. Over the years he has covered enterprise computing, the PC revolution, client/server, the evolution of the Internet, the rise of web-based business, and IT management. He has covered breaking industry news and has led teams focused on product reviews and technology trends. Throughout his tech journalism career, he has concentrated on serving the information needs of IT decision-makers in large organizations and has worked with those managers to help them learn from their peers and share their experiences in implementing leading-edge technologies through publications including Computerworld. Jim also has helped to launch a technology-focused startup, as one of the founding editors at TechTarget, and has served as editor of an established news organization focused on technology startups and the Boston-area venture capital sector at MassHighTech. A former crime reporter for the Boston Herald, he majored in journalism at Northeastern University.

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Re: Finding Analytics Talent Involves Perspective
  • 12/18/2015 8:25:24 AM

@Kimberly. Great point about the use of the term "soft skills". I know I tend to use it when I can't think of a word that combines business understanding and personal communication skills. You are right that it does seem to diminish the importance of those abilities. Even in technical roles, those skills can be just as important as any technical certification or expertise.

Yes, "likeability" is a good trait for a technical person (or anyone else), but as a frequent project "business owner" who doesn't come from a technical background, I have seen "likeability" as a nice-to-have for techies that I deal with.  Even if the tech person is grumpy, what matters to me is their ability to listen to and understand my needs and their willingness to build/fix what we need done. Of course, doing that build/fix right is a given.

Re: Finding Analytics Talent Involves Perspective
  • 12/17/2015 10:16:25 AM

Hi Louis,

I am a technical person by background so I understand your skepticism.  Early in my career I didn't think the "soft" skills mattered much.  That is, until I saw a lot of non-technical people having great success.   It perplexed me.  Then a wise person said to me "success in business is like being popular in high school ... people do business with people they like."   If people don't like you and don't want to work with you, it doesn't matter how great your technical skills are.

Now, my mantra is "You can teach analytics but you can't teach likeability."   I'd rather have a good technical person who is likeable than an outstanding technical person who isn't likeable.  Likeability is a requirement.

Also, I hate the term "soft skills"   They are "essential skills"



Re: Finding Analytics Talent Involves Perspective
  • 2/25/2015 9:18:48 AM

@Seth. I agree that there are a lot of job openings where you won't even get a look if you don't have a good technical pedigree. However, I also think there are some -- a growing number too -- jobs that data science is opening up where people on the analytics team won't be deep into the technology themselves. Depending on the size of the team they might be project leaders or they could be in a client liaison role of some sort. Those are people who might need a core understanding of how analytics work but they won't be building models themselves. Those certainly could be people who are hired based on their soft skills and their interest in analytics, and who can be taught some of the fundamentals of the technology.


Re: Finding Analytics Talent Involves Perspective
  • 2/25/2015 1:31:24 AM

First I have to say I was impressed to hear it admited that employers are unlikely to find the  exact skill fit, and will have to find those that are transferrable and then groom the canditate. 

Regarding the technical vs. softskills.  I agree that the soft skills are the most valuable, however if a person doesn't have the technical skills on their resume, they are not even going to get to the first interview. 

Finding Analytics Talent Involves Perspective
  • 2/24/2015 9:50:58 PM

"...communication skills, a focus on business problems, and an ability to build trusting relationships with business partners."


I was initially skeptical of this statement, but then I went to a site of a progressive Big Data startup (Think Big ) and looked to see if the ability to communicate effectively was really sought after in their role of Data Scientist - And it was ! 

I know many including myself wonder if the technical requirements of the position outweigh the other skills necessary. In other words, there should be a place as a "Data Scientist" for those who are not as experience on the technical side, but through past experience have a decent probability of understanding the technical side of things.  

One should be able to understand the analytical tools and principles used of course but that is not necessarily the key to becoming an effective Data Scientist either IMO.   As was mentioned the ability to translate the question and conculsions into something understandable and therefore actionable is paramount to the success of Big Data and Analtyics projects in general.

Data Scientist come in different shades of expertise, once companies realize this - it should be easier to fill the role.