It seems as though terms such as ‘big data,’ ‘data analytics,’ and ‘data science’ have gotten their fair share of use as of late, but what exactly do they mean? Often, the people who throw around these buzz words in casual conversations are not fully aware of the significant impact big data has had on everything from college course offerings to the nation’s job market.
Big data was predicted to be a game changer in many aspects in 2013, and its influence is far-reaching. Because of this, a growing demand for a workforce skilled in analytics, programming, statistics, and numerous IT fields has emerged. Colleges and universities recognize this need and are offering more courses and degree specializations in fields focused on big data.
What Exactly is Big Data?
People know it’s important, seem excited about it, and have undoubtedly heard others make mention of it, but many still may not be clear on what exactly big data is. It’s fair to be a bit confused. Big data has different meanings to different people.
Some think that before defining what big data is, little data must first be defined. According to Andrew Gadomski, chief advisor and founder of Aspen Advisors, little data is “getting the data that we want, in the timeframe that we want, and with the accuracy that we want.”
Little data is what people know about themselves, for example, a spreadsheet listing all the groceries a person purchased over a three-month period. Big data, by contrast, is what organizations know about people. An example of big data might be the purchasing habits of shoppers at a certain grocery store.
For the sake of simplicity, big data can be considered an encompassment of the growth, availability, organization and use of information and data. It is, essentially, large collections of complex data — anything from customers’ purchasing habits to a person’s online behavior on social media sites. Big data involves various skill sets, which can vary, depending on the person asked. Now is an optimal time for big data because people have more ways to collect it and there is an identified need for collecting the data.
The job prospects for those adept in big data look promising. Businesses are interested in data scientists — people who are fascinated by data and good with numbers. These are the people that will help businesses make sense of large amounts of data, analyze and identify trends, and ultimately use the information to guide decisions and increase sales and success.
The New York Times reported that in order to meet the demand from employers, the U.S. needs to increase the number of graduates skilled in big data by as much as 60%. With expectations of almost half a million jobs in five years, there is a projected shortage of up to 190,000 qualified data scientists. Additionally, there’s a need for 1.5 million executives and support staff who understand data.
Big Data’s Role in Human Resources
For all its many purposes, perhaps big data’s most favorable role has developed in the form of HR recruiting and hiring. As Marcia LaReau, president of Forward Motion, LLC puts it, big data is the new science of hiring.
“The premise is that so much information exists and computerized analysis is so swift that technology is able to do a much better job of determining both the key success factors and potential individuals who should be considered,” LaReau said. “Mega-data can be collected, analyzed, and interpreted to identify the key attributes of a successful employee specific to the industry and identify the best candidates for a specific job — by name!”
More companies are veering away from using traditional methods such as HR managers, and relying on big data to make their hiring decisions. Advocates of big data believe software that crunches piles of information is more likely to spot things not apparent to the naked eye. Another perceived advantage is the avoidance of human error and biases.
“The big claim is that this process doesn’t have personal bias, but that isn’t true at all,” LaReau countered. “Every computer software program carries the bias of the programmers.”
Big data’s main advantage in HR may be in its ability to simplify and speed up the process of poring over mounds of applications — something which is beneficial for businesses that employ many workers with no specialized job training or education, often companies with large turnover and a slew of steady applicants.
“HR has been charged in many industries and companies with the responsibility for the bottom line. ‘If we didn’t make a profit, it’s because HR didn’t hire the right people,’” LaReau said. “HR asks if the business is willing to pay for the top talent and the business says ‘no.’ So, HR is pressured to find people who can bring value with the shortest possible ramp-up time. Enter big data — yes, I believe it will be embraced quickly.”
What Big Data Looks for in Potential Employees
The information that is uncovered by big data includes almost anything one could fathom: a city’s crime statistics, the most popular vacation destinations for the summer, or shopping patterns of college students. However, what employers are looking for from big data is a little different. They want specific information dependent upon their specific needs.
LaReau said if a company wants to hire a coder for a specific programming language, for example, that company might scan data on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, or programmer chat rooms. Big data companies can then identify the people in a particular geographic area that do that kind of programming as well as their level of expertise and their ability to communicate with their peers and so forth.
Evolv, a company that analyzes recruitment and workplace data, has become a major player in big data. Evolv uses attrition data and real-time performance to weed through millions of available workers to find the best fit for hourly positions. Data analytics make quite a difference in the process of screening applicants.
“Big data reveals everything from the best route to work to the best companies to work for,” said Nathan West, director of analytical products at Evolv. “And now, data also reveals how companies can make the most of their biggest and most valuable investment — people.”
West said more than 90% of Fortune 500 companies have big data initiatives underway, and human resources data accounts for one-third of all enterprise data created.
“Employers looking to reduce attrition and optimize the productivity of their workforces are mining the mountains of data that they already have on applicants and employees to reveal new and, at times, surprising insights,” West said. “HR benefits from the application of big data analytics in more than just the hiring and onboarding part of the employee lifecycle. Analysis of millions of performance data points across the employee lifecycle, including termination, can inform the recruitment process at the beginning.”
As the Economist points out, rather than asking jobseekers if they are honest — which may yield dishonest answers, potential employees can take surveys which will measure honesty indirectly. Questions such as “How good are you with computers?” followed by “What does Control-V do in a word processing program?” will determine whether or not a candidate is being honest.
Big data allows companies to look less at traditional gauges of talent, such as an Ivy League degree or a previous high-profile job, and focus more on quantifiable data: how well does a person perform and what can a person do for the company?
How Jobseekers Can Catch the Eye of Big Data
The use of big data has certainly changed the way in which the hiring process works.
“Graduates are playing a different ballgame, so to speak. They aren’t expected to have the hard-honed skill sets of people in their mid-career,” LaReau said. “Consequently, they should design a resume that brings out other assets such as a pleasant demeanor, professional presence, resilience, ability to get along and make others comfortable in the workplace, adaptability, and creative solutions.”
According to Abby Kohut, career expert and blogger for AbsolutelyAbby, use of big data has made the hiring process become more impersonal, though it may prove easier for recruiters to manage and report on their data.
“Back when I started recruiting, my eyes told me if a candidate was qualified for a job based on their resume,” Kohut said. “Now a computer is making the decision. In my opinion, we all stand to lose when people are discounted because they don’t know how to ‘play the game’ to be found.”
The days of public job postings may be limited as the wave of big data plays an increasingly larger role in the recruiting process. There are some things graduates can do to better market themselves to employers in the age of big data:
- Be Strategic in Your Online Presence. A person’s online presence will be the means by which they will be found (or not found) by recruiters. “Hiring professionals will go out and find people rather than having jobseekers approach them about potential positions,” LaReau said. “If I were a jobseeker, I would begin finding ways to build relationships with recruiters to understand how to present their online profiles.” LaReau also suggests graduates use LinkedIn extensively, especially groups in their industry, to demonstrate a strong desire for a specific kind of job.
- Use Key Words on Your Resume. “Jobseekers at all levels need to be sure that they have the appropriate keywords on their resumes and cover letters,” Kohut said. “But more than having them listed, they need to repeat the words more than once. The person who matches the words more often rises to the top of the stack. That is how the game is played.” The keywords should reference specific job requirements to catch employers’ attention. These include skills, technological competencies, and other relevant credentials. Kohut suggested jobseekers review job descriptions for desired positions, review LindedIn profiles of their competition, and read industry articles to learn which words are frequently used.
- Prep Your References. Since big data dictates so much of the hiring process, networking may not be as effective. Therefore, it’s extremely beneficial for jobseekers to make sure they have strong references. “Right now, there is a trend by hiring companies to call references as a part of their pre-selection process,” LaReau said. “So references are part of the de-selection process, even before the candidate knows they are being considered. Prepping references is important and every candidate can expect that anyone they know may be called, whether they are on their reference list or not.”
- Be Smart in Choosing Internships. LaReau said regarding internships, the sooner the better. She urges students to identify potential companies in sophomore year of college, or even in high school, if possible. “Getting called back to an internship junior year speaks volumes,” she said. “A mistake some grads make is accepting an internship at a company that doesn’t have the capacity to hire them and doesn’t have potential mentors that will assist them in launching their career after the internship.”
- Pay Attention to Market Trends. Big data is not something jobseekers can really control or manipulate, but remaining up-to-date and knowledgeable about industry trends will help jobseekers. “There is a huge brain drain as boomers are leaving the workplace in droves. In the next two years, at least 8 million boomers will leave the workplace,” LaReau said. “That means unemployment will go down to 4% and those not working will likely be ‘unemployable.’ HR is scrambling to pull together incentive packages to keep boomers because the next generation (Generation X) is very small and there aren’t enough of them to fill the need.”
Ready or not, big data is here and has markedly changed the job search as we know it. The era of big data has stamped a footprint in the rigid concrete known as the traditional job hunt. Though the system is not perfect — it’s new and there may be some unforeseen issues — many companies are excited about the prospect of creating a workforce full of employees picked specifically based on data relevant to the job.