Mind the gap: Data literacy in the workplace

By Laurie Reedman

Graphs on a table with 2 people writing on them.

Data literacy skills are increasingly vital to sectors across the economy. Unfortunately, in countries like Canada, Australia, the US and the UK, there’s currently a large skills gap. Here’s how that happened, and what can be done about it.

What is data literacy and why does it matter?

In a nutshell, it’s about the ability to derive meaningful information from data.

UCL’s 2022–2027 Strategic Plan consultation is considering evolving the university’s Grand Challenges programme. One of the candidate challenge areas currently under discussion is that of ‘Data-empowered societies,’ which recognises that a ‘data-empowered society will require a more collaborative, democratic and inclusive approach to the way that choices are made, as well as a much more ‘data-savvy’ population.’

The UK Government is driving debate around data literacy and introducing key strategies aimed at businesses and universities to support the better use of data. The UK National Data Strategy states, “better use of data can help organisations of every kind succeed — across the public, private and third sectors. […] It’s a driver of scientific and technological innovation and is central to the delivery of a whole range of vital public services and societal goals. As businesses embrace technology, data creates jobs, opens up whole new markets and drives demand for a highly-skilled workforce” (UK.GOV, 2020). There is a drive towards the better use of data with clear rewards if we get it right. But are we anywhere close to achieving this ‘data-savvy population’?

What is the current state of play?

Jobs are becoming more and more data-dependent, while formal education has not done enough to prepare university graduates to handle data. According to the UK National Data Strategy, data skills in the UK are concentrated in science and technology, but lacking across the workforce as a whole (GOV.UK, 2020). Similarly, the Harvard Business Review (2020) found that data skills are now essential for almost every role in every organisation. However, TechRepublic (2021) reports that a study of young people aged 16–21 in the US found that while most considered data an important element in the future of their lives and careers, only 34% considered themselves data literate, and 54% lacked familiarity with the concept altogether. Companies need more people with the ability to interpret data, draw insights, and ask the right questions.

The current data literacy gap harkens back to the 1980s when typist jobs in offices started to disappear. Staff had to do their own typing, but they didn’t know how! Now keyboarding skills are taught in school and it’s generally assumed that potential employees will already have these skills. At some point perhaps we’ll reach the same level of proficiency with data manipulation.

How to bridge the skills gap

In their report on Quantifying the Data Skills Gap, the UK’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) state that they’re committed to ensuring that businesses across all sectors can get the data-literate employees they need (GOV.UK, 2021). They commissioned Opinion Research to undertake a study that revealed that 48% of businesses were recruiting for roles that require data skills, but 42% had struggled to fill those roles over the past 2 years.

The UK National Data Strategy highlights that to make the best use of data, there must be a wealth of data skills to draw on. This requires delivering the right skills through the education system and ensuring that people can continue to develop the data skills they need throughout their lives. The UK government has taken several initiatives, including:

· launching a degree conversion program in computer science and AI;

· rolling out free digital bootcamps across England that include courses in data analysis;

· testing effective ways to teach foundational data skills to all undergraduates;

· launching the Economic and Social Research Council and Administrative Data Research UK (ESRC-ADR UK) №10 Data Science Fellowships in 2021; and

· looking at further ways to partner with industry, academia and other training providers (GOV.UK, 2021).

Equally, universities have begun taking up the challenge. UCL’s Q-Step Centre provides social science students with training in social data science, through courses in quantitative research methods, data analysis and visualisation. Whilst these initiatives and programmes are a step in the right direction, the change is taking place all too slowly.

As noted in Opinion Research’s report, much more could be done by employers, particularly senior managers, by highlighting the importance of all aspects of data skills training, both for the sake of employees’ day-to-day work, and their future career prospects in the fast-changing work environment. Educators and private training companies also have a critical role to play in shaping curricula that are up to date, dynamic and relevant.

Statistics Canada offers training and workshops on survey methodology, data analysis and data quality. We noticed through these and other interactions with our partners across the Canadian federal government that many of them were lacking in data literacy skills. So, we reused and repurposed content from our existing training material and created a suite of data literacy training videos. These are available free of charge, online, to anyone.

Within the first few months the videos had been incorporated into training programs at the Canada School of the Public Service, several other Canadian federal government departments, and the Australian Bureau of Statistics. We also reached out to Apolitical, a UK based online platform for hosting courses, articles, and events. We put together a data literacy bootcamp hosted by Apolitical which catapulted our material to a much broader audience. We even won Apolitical’s 2021 Global Public Service Team of the Year Award in the category of Data and Digital Champions!

What’s next

The good news is there’s lots of accessible (and often free) learning material out there. To get you started, I’ve published a reference manual on Evaluation and Survey Methods that signposts lots of additional training and links for further reading.

The ability to turn data into information is a superpower we can all have. It’s simply a level of confidence and ease with tables and charts, the ability to critically assess what data can and can’t be trusted, and the skills to summarise information and substantiate decisions with facts and legitimacy. Upskilling the existing workforce will result in greater productivity and innovation. The time is now and the choice is yours to close the gap.

More about the author

Laurie Reedman is now happily retired after a 30-year career as a statistician at Statistics Canada.


Harvard Business Review. 2020. “Boost Your Team’s Data Literacy”. Available at: https://hbr.org/2020/02/boost-your-teams-data-literacy (accessed February 18, 2022).

TechRepublic. 2021. “Data literacy gap among young people could impact businesses”. Available at: https://www.techrepublic.com/article/data-literacy-gap-among-young-people-could-impact-businesses/ (accessed February 18, 2022).

UK.GOV 2020. “National Data Strategy”. Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport policy paper. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/uk-national-data-strategy/national-data-strategy#data-1-2 (accessed February 16, 2022).

UK.Gov 2021. “Quantifying the UK Data Skills Gap — Full report”. Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport policy paper. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/quantifying-the-uk-data-skills-gap/quantifying-the-uk-data-skills-gap-full-report (accessed February 18, 2022).



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