I’ve been very open in my social channels about growing up in poverty, and just as transparent about how data literacy helped me pull myself out. In addition to sharing these stories, I want to emphasize what some data leaders are doing (and what you can do) to drive change so that millions more can gain access to data literacy courses and experience the career benefits I have.

As the daughter of a single mom, our family was on TANF, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, better known in the US as welfare. My childhood included food stamps, standing in line for government cheese and peanut butter, and consuming powdered milk (zero stars, would not recommend). Despite our circumstances, education was something we always valued in our house. 

The money for college just wasn’t there for me, however, and I struggled in my early twenties. Wondering whether you can pay rent is a sobering moment for a lot of people. For me, it was probably the first time I realized that I was the safety net I needed to catch myself. 

Data as deliverance
I set my life in a new direction when I went from being a cashier in a grocery store to a manager in their cash office. I had to make sure everything balanced out, which developed my innate financial skills and helped me to get to my next job, which was in Collections. In this role I learned Excel and gained office experience. When that company formed a new analytics team in 2010 to create reports and support data analysis, I suggested a software package I’d heard about from an acquaintance. It was called Tableau. Soon I was teaching colleagues how to use Tableau, and my company put me through Lean Six Sigma training. It helped that the Six Sigma control charts were visualized in Tableau. 

Fast forward to today. Data and data analytics are no longer a groundbreaking career path. I doubt there’s a single job left in service, the trades or healthcare, in fact, that will not feel the impact of data soon, if it hasn’t already. On a recent Braindate I did for this site, I spoke to a company that consults to trades, and their major concern was how they could help their electricians be more data literate, looking at Excel and other programs on tablets.

Recent history is a cause for both optimism and concern. Students and career-changers need data skills more than ever to raise their prospects and thrive, but are they learning them?  

Training for the new data economy
The latest research on data literacy in education doesn’t paint a pretty picture. Only 48% of universities are providing data literacy skills initiatives. Worse, 60% of recruiters say that the candidates they meet aren’t equipped with the data skills necessary to enter the workforce. And these are young adults graduating with tens of thousands of dollars in debt. The quality of education at universities is high, but at the same time it's outdated. That’s one reason why I remove degree requirements from job descriptions whenever I work with our recruiting team. I want to know about your experience, not your college major.

Recruiters don’t just rank data literacy and data skills as those in highest demand among employers in five years: they’re the most in-demand skills right now. If universities don't start stepping up their game, people are going to choose alternative educational options. In fact, I openly encourage them. Here are just a few data literacy programs that can help you build your knowledge and skills: 

  • Massive online open courses (MOOCs). Sites like edx, Coursera, DataCamp, Udemy, Udacity, and Lynda all offer data training classes online, most free. A lot of leading universities have followed their lead and offer free online training as well. 
  • Digital Nest. Jacob Martinez founded this technology workforce development hub in Silicon Valley in 2014. Digital Nest provides teens and young adults with high-demand technology skills, mentoring and hands-on experience. Teachers are often data professionals employed in Silicon Valley. Graduates earn an average starting salary of $45,760, which is 30% higher than California’s minimum wage. 
  • Year Up. Founded over 20 years ago, Year Up provides tuition-free training programs in ten different career paths, including data analytics, as well as internships with more than 250 companies including Microsoft, Bank of America and Amazon. 
  • Data Stories. Data Stories is a nonprofit organization dedicated to bringing data science and storytelling to high school students and teachers, as well as early career adults, around the world. I actively contribute to this organization because I believe almost every community has the resources to create economic opportunity at the local level by involving its citizens in passing along data skills.

The mentorship connection
As a data leader, you have many excellent opportunities to step up and mentor the next generation of data professionals. You can offer your skills to organizations like the ones above and help lead a data literacy course or plug into a program your company already may be offering to help people put essential experience on their resumés. You can mentor colleagues in your own organization to build their skills. 

Educating people in data skills can help people change the narrative of their lives and build a bridge out of poverty or a minimum wage, paycheck-to-paycheck life. Before data “takes the lead” on these people’s lives, we can help them get ahead of data and use it to make the world more equitable, efficient, and productive. 

If you’re reading this story, it’s likely that you’ve got the credentials and you’ve made the journey already. If you can’t find the time right now, donate to a data literacy program like the ones above so they can keep doing what they need to do. If you consider the skills gap we’re facing, and higher education’s failure to respond, expanding the field of qualified applicants, from high school graduates to military veterans, may be in your best interests as well as those of the next generation of aspiring data leaders.