Data literacy gap among young people could impact businesses

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Only 43% of those 16-21 consider themselves data literate, which may spell trouble as they begin to enter the modern workforce.

Jean-philippe WALLET, Getty Images/iStockphoto

A study of young people aged 16-21 finds that while most consider data an important element of the future of their lives and careers, only 43% consider themselves data literate, and 54% lack familiarity with the concept altogether.

Data literacy is defined in the report using MIT’s definition of “the ability to read, work with, analyze, and argue with data,” and it’s generally considered an essential skill in today’s work world, the report said. 

The age group that the report draws its data from, 16 to 21, is what report publisher Exasol calls digital natives, or “D/NATIVES.” Digital natives are those who grew up surrounded by social media, portable technology and the value of data, so it may come as a surprise that as they enter the workforce they’re unprepared to deal with the data-rich world we live in. 

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Employers, the report said, are going to expect digital natives to be data literate and shortcomings could make their post-college employment options complicated. That’s not to say that digital natives think data is unimportant: 76% believe that data and statistics have an impact on their lives, and a further 23% think it has a significant impact, leaving little room for those who think data is unimportant. 

The catch comes in when considering how literate D/NATIVES actually are. As mentioned above, only 43% consider themselves data literate. “While this could suggest a significant skills shortage, it could also mean that today’s young people are simply not conversant with business terminology around data,” the report said. 

“Data isn’t this complex, scary thing for technical people. Data is about facts and data literacy is the ability to recognize and interpret the patterns that those facts reveal. On that basis, D/NATIVES might actually be more data literate than they think,” said report contributor Adah Parris.

Seventy-eight percent of those surveyed said that data is important for their education and eventual jobs, but only 52% believe their education is properly preparing them with “the confidence and skills” to be data literate. The consensus (at 55%) seems to be that data skills should play a more central role in education, which the report said “raises new questions for educational bodies, businesses and society as a whole, with regards to how we educate people and young people in particular, around data.”

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The report found that digital natives were unaware how great a role data played in their lives. Instead, they view the work they’re doing “as dealing with math, statistics, programming, or coding instead.” While this may suggest a lack of data-related skills, the report said it in fact reveals the exact opposite: Digital natives’ lives are so affected by data that they don’t realize what they’re working with, and what they’ve become adept at manipulating.

It’s essential, the report concludes, for business leaders to help bridge the gap between D/NATIVES and the world of data. Businesses that need data-literate employees should link up with schools and colleges to encourage data literacy or make sure it’s part of curriculum, seek advice from thought leaders and analysts to learn how to support a bridge over the data literacy gap, and make training that can help improve data literacy skills readily available to employees, both young and old. 

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