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Big data jobs outpace general market

Professionals in big data are big deals in today's largely sluggish US job market.

The demand for talent capable of gleaning useful information from businesses' increasingly large and diverse data sets - generated by sensors, electronic payments, online sales, social media and more - is outpacing the supply of workers.

Take Enova International, which analyzes more than two dozen data sources to determine, in less than 10 minutes, whether an applicant will qualify for one of its three-year, $US10,000 loans.

In the past three years, the growing Chicago online lender has doubled the size of its analytic team to 25 people, and next year, it would like to increase it by 50 per cent, said Adam McElhinney, Enova's head of business analytics.

"There's a shortage of talent that we're looking to address," McElhinney said.

By 2018, the United States might face a shortfall of about 35 per cent in the number of people with advanced training in statistics and other disciplines who can help companies realise the potential of digital information generated from their own operations as well as from suppliers and customers, according to McKinsey & Co.

That deficit represents more than 140,000 workers, the consulting firm estimates.

Workers in big data are hard to come by in the short term. A recent survey by CareerBuilder - an affiliate of Tribune Co, which owns the Chicago Tribune and is a partner in McClatchy-Tribune News Service - found that "jobs tied to managing and interpreting big data" were among the "hot areas for hiring" in the second half of 2013.

"There aren't enough of them. Period. End of story," said Linda Burtch, founder of Burtch Works, an Evanston, Illinois-based executive recruitment firm.

"The demand for quantitative professionals has grown so across industries that there aren't enough kids coming out of school studying math and statistics."

As a result, about half of Enova's data analysts have visas or green cards.

Historically, Enova typically hired people with degrees in statistics, computer science and industrial engineering, but it has broadened its potential talent pool to include people with backgrounds in astrophysics and computational chemistry.

Enova, a unit of Texas-based Cash America International Inc, visits with Northwestern University and the University of Chicago several times a year, recommending that they adjust their curriculum to help turn out graduates with the skills for big data.

"Over the past five years, there has been a convergence of data analysis and computer science," McElhinney said, noting that big data requires proficiency at both.

"Five years ago, that was not the case."

On October 11 at the University of Chicago, Enova, which has more than 1,000 Chicago-area workers, is sponsoring a "data smackdown" in which it will provide students with a data set and business case, and the students have six hours to make recommendations.

Meanwhile, IBM on August 14 said it had now partnered with more than 1,000 colleges and universities, including those at Northwestern and DePaul, to try to narrow the skills gap on big data.

Thanks partly to advances in software and database systems, companies find it easier to capture, store, crunch and share the data in ways that help their business serve customers, predict their behaviour, innovate, improve productivity and cut costs. The computing power of the average desktop computer, for example, has risen by 75 times from 2000 to 2013, McKinsey said.

Big data pays well. Median base salaries for nonmanagement workers is $US90,000, according to a 47-page Burtch Works report published in July that surveyed 2,845 of the quantitative professionals in the firm's database.

Nearly nine of 10 big data professionals have at least a master's in a quantitative discipline such as statistics, applied mathematics, operations research or economics, according to Burtch Works.

At companies, they work in such areas as analytical database marketing, analytics management and business intelligence. Nearly 40 per cent are foreign citizens, Burtch Works found in its study.

Nine out of 10 quantitative professionals are recruited over LinkedIn at least once a month, Burtch said.

"Candidates with a strong breadth of knowledge in big data are challenging to find," said Rona Borre, chief executive of Instant Technology, a Chicago-based talent management firm.

She said junior-level professionals in big data can start out earning $US80,000, with senior technicians making as much as $US140,000.

Big data professionals are also becoming more important to insurance companies, which need help sorting through and learning from data to provide better services and savings for their policyholders.

For example, Progressive Corp's Snapshot device, which is installed in the car and collects driving data, has pulled in more than eight billion miles (12.87 billion km) of driving data, and that number increases by the second.

As such, Progressive has "become much more proactive" about finding big data talent, including having a staff of "sourcing specialists" who home in on finding people with big data skills, said Adam Kornick, Progressive's big data and analytics business leader.

"As part of our recruiting efforts, we spend a lot of time highlighting Cleveland as a great place to live and work."