Help Wanted: Black Belts in Data

Starting salaries for data scientists have gone north of $200,000
Photographer: Getty Images

A new species of techie is in demand these days—not only in Silicon Valley, but also in company headquarters around the world. “Data scientists are the new superheroes,” says Pascal Clement, the head of Amadeus Travel Intelligence in Madrid. The description isn’t exactly hyperbolic: The qualifications for the job include the strength to tunnel through mountains of information and the vision to discern patterns where others see none. Clement’s outfit is part of Amadeus IT Holding, the world’s largest manager of flight bookings for airlines, which has more than 40 data scientists on its payroll, including some with a background in astrophysics. The company recently launched Schedule Recovery, a product that tracks delays and automatically rebooks all affected passengers.

A study by McKinsey projects that “by 2018, the U.S. alone may face a 50 percent to 60 percent gap between supply and requisite demand of deep analytic talent.” The shortage is already being felt across a broad spectrum of industries, including aerospace, insurance, pharmaceuticals, and finance. When the consulting firm Accenture surveyed its clients on their big-data strategies in April 2014, more than 90 percent said they planned to hire more employees with expertise in data science—most within a year. However, 41 percent of the more than 1,000 respondents cited a lack of talent as a chief obstacle. “It will get worse before it gets better,” says Narendra Mulani, senior managing director at Accenture Analytics.

Many data scientists have Ph.D.s or postdoctorates and a background in academic research, says Marco Bressan, president for data and analytics at BBVA, a Spanish bank that operates in 31 countries and has a team of more than 20 data scientists. “We have nanotechnologists, physicists, mathematicians, specialists in robotics,” he says. “It’s people who can explore large volumes of data that aren’t structured.”

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So-called unstructured data can include e-mails, videos, photos, social media, and other user-generated content. Data scientists write algorithms to extract insights from these troves of information. But “true data scientists are rare,” says Ricard Benjamins, head of business intelligence and big data at Telefónica, Europe’s second-largest phone company, which employs more than 200 of them. Says Stan Humphries, chief economist at Zillow, the real estate listings site: “You can find a great developer and a great researcher who has a background in statistics, and maybe you can find a great problem solver, but to find that in the same person is hard.”

Universities are taking note. MIT, where graduate students in physics, astronomy, and biology are fielding offers from outside their chosen fields, is in the process of setting up a dedicated data-science institute. Marilyn Wilson, the university’s associate director for career development, says the center will begin enrolling graduate degree candidates in 2016.

In the U.K., the University of Warwick introduced a three-year undergraduate data-science program last year, which David Firth, the program’s mastermind, says may well be the first of its kind. “Big Business was complaining about the lack of people,” he says. “Finance is a major employer, but also large-scale insurers, large online commercial retailers, high-tech startups, and government, which has huge data sets.”

Accenture’s Mulani says he’s tallied some 30 new data-science programs in North America, either up and running or in the works. The University of Virginia began offering a master’s in 2014, as did Stanford. Many of those students may be tempted to drop out before collecting their degree. “Companies are scrambling,” says Margot Gerritsen, director of Stanford’s Institute for Computational & Mathematical Engineering. “We have second- and third-year students getting offered salaries much higher than what I get.” Starting pay for some full-time jobs is above $200,000, she reports. Summer internships, meanwhile, pay anywhere from $6,000 to $10,000 a month. To make these stints memorable, many employers offer perks such as free meals, complimentary gym memberships, and occasionally temporary housing. “Sometimes you read about students getting abused in internships and working like slaves,” Gerritsen says. “We don’t see that.”

The bottom line: McKinsey projects that by 2018 demand for data scientists may be as much as 60 percent greater than the supply.

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