In a packed conference room at SAS Canada’s Toronto headquarters, a group of four high school students addresses an attentive crowd that includes a judging panel of some of the country’s best data researchers and analytics experts, business leaders, government officials and fellow students as part of the STEM Fellowship Big Data Challenge. No pressure.

With a visual presentation easily on par with any corporate boardroom show-and-tell, the young team, from Toronto’s Earl Haig Secondary School, and one of 10 to present that day, delivers detailed findings on their chosen topic: the correlation between the climate and crime rate. Using data tools such as Python, Tableau and SAS to analyze open data sets from NASA, the Canadian Space Agency, the European Space Agency among other sources, the presentation adeptly achieves the competition’s theme goal of “revealing the impact of environmental condition on human health and well-being.”

This is the STEM Fellowship Big Data Challenge for High School Students. Led by SAS Canada and STEM Fellowship, it’s just one way that companies like SAS are addressing the current Canadian skills gap in STEM-related disciplines, more specifically in analytics and big data, with the added bonus of helping to cultivate a resource of potential recruits for SAS’s own customers, too.

Winners have their project papers published in the STEM Fellowship Journal and receive monetary prizes as well, but more importantly, the hope is that it will inspire them to continue their education and, with any luck, move ahead with careers in data and analytics.

STEM Fellowship Big Data Challenge
Students from the 2018 Big Data Challenge make their presentation. Image: STEM Fellowship

Demand is high, supply is low

According to SAS, who has been working closely with Canadian high schools and universities for years, the need for skilled analytics-trained minds is outpacing the supply. A report by the Big Data Consortium states that Canada faces a deficit of up to 19,000 people with analytics skills and 150,000 managers and analysts who understand analytics.

“It’s well documented that there’s a gap in the demand for people who can leverage analytics to create business value,” SAS Canada President, Cameron Dow tells ITBusiness.ca. “This is clear in the hundreds of colleges and universities worldwide that are gearing up business analytics, artificial intelligence, machine learning and other programs aimed at analysis of data in a business context.”

But why is talent in the Canadian big data area in such short supply? “The talent gap is not unique to Canada, this is a global issue,” answers Dow. “As enterprises increasingly recognize the value of the vast volumes of data they collect and the drive for an artificial intelligence-enabled future, the demand for people who can unlock that value will unquestionably rise.”

Cultivating the future

And from a recruitment standpoint, it makes perfect sense for SAS Canada to invest heavily in education, with the company focusing on a pathway that involves partnerships with analytics vendors, industry consortia, and educational institutions to prepare the incoming workforce for the world of analytics.

“SAS has invested a lot in education; it’s one of our core values,” says Lindsay Hart, Academic Program Manager at SAS Canada, describing the importance of an event like the Big Data Challenge. “STEM Fellowship has been a great partner of ours. The goal of the academic program is to make sure students have what they need to teach and learn and do research with analytics – anywhere from Kindergarten all the way up through post grad programs. And then we work to connect those students with our customers looking for new SAS talent. And that’s how we really work to help close that skills gap.”

The American Dream is still real

But while this is definitely a step in the right direction, there’s clearly still work to be done when you consider the draw that many young people feel to jump the border for potentially better opportunities in the United States, especially in IT-related fields.

In an article written by Dow on the SAS website, he points out that while Canada seems to have stemmed the so-called “brain drain” that at one time saw 20 per cent of Canadian STEM graduates migrating to the U.S. for “what they perceived as a more lucrative market for their skills,” with holy grail Silicon Valley companies tempting graduates, the perception that there are better opportunities south of the border is still real.

“There are opportunities here, but I think there are a lot more opportunities in the U.S. for tech,” says Maria Pasyechnyk, Earl Haig student and ‘climate and crime rate’ Data Challenge competitor whose passion for STEM is inspired by her older brother, a software engineer at Facebook who’s living the dream in Palo Alto.

And while Pasyechnyk does think that Canada has a lot of job opportunities, especially in and around Toronto and when compared to other countries, when asked if she thinks the Canadian government could be doing more to support STEM and tech-related fields, she said that “they could, for example, put more money into education,” adding that while high schools do offer data management courses, they’re not in-depth enough.

“I think there definitely should be more programs offered, but I think there’s a lack of teachers and a lack of funding for that,” Pasyechnyk says. “Which I do understand, because you can always go more in-depth in university. But if you have the option to choose that course, I think it would definitely help you with your future occupation and your future interests.”

In the meantime, eager STEM students like Pasyechnyk can take advantage of all the support that companies and organizations like SAS and STEM Fellowship have an offer to help further their education and eventual careers. In fact, the Big Data Challenge is already paying off for Pasyechnyk and her teammates. At the time of this post, ITBusiness.ca learned that Maria and her partners Robin Nash, Arya Shababi and Ali Seena Shakeri are among the Toronto winners, taking home the RBC Arnold Chan Award.

“Their ability to tackle some of the world’s most pressing issues with such a limited knowledge of data and analytics is incredible,” Dow says of the impressive students participating in the Challenge. “Just think about what they’ll be able to accomplish once they’ve been trained and ready to hit the workforce. The future looks bright for these young minds.”

ITBusiness.ca contacted a representative of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada for an interview, but at the time of this post we had not heard back.
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