The data skills gap keeps getting bigger. Here's how one company is filling it

Bentley Motors is using a pioneering program to snare hard-to-find data talent – and it's an approach that provides big benefits for up-and-coming professionals, too.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor
Andriy Onufriyenko/Getty Images

It's no good having an executive board that recognizes the importance of data if you haven't got the specialist skills in your company to exploit its information assets.

More than half (54%) of digital leaders globally say a skills shortage is preventing them from keeping up with the pace of change, according to recruitment specialist Nash Squared's annual Digital Leadership Report.

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The survey shows the biggest skills gap is in data. Big data, analytics, and data engineering are the most in-demand technology skills, with around half (51%) of CIOs looking to increase their internal headcount for data capabilities during the next 12 months.

With an organization's board keen to discover how emerging technologies -- such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, and the Internet of Things -- can help the business to gain a competitive advantage, the demand for high-quality data talent is only going to increase.

It's with this battle for talent in mind that Andy Moore, chief data officer (CDO) at Bentley Motors, is leading an initiative to help the automotive giant attract, train, and retain data-literate professionals.

Moore explained to ZDNET at the London leg of Snowflake's Data Cloud World Tour how the apprenticeship program is a "digital pipeline of future talent."

This pipeline takes people from school and into Bentley as degree apprentices. The young professionals spend 20% of their week in education and 80% at Bentley learning hands-on data skills across a range of areas from data analysis to software development and user interface design.

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Moore says the apprenticeship program, now in its fifth year, is "laser-focused" on data science.

"I've had about 30 people go through the apprenticeship, and the first people have now graduated and gone into permanent roles, which is great," he says.

The key message, says Moore, is that Bentley's apprenticeship program is adding data talent to the IT skills pool and it's helping to foster a community of like-minded professionals.

"We've got a group of people who've gone through the program. It's not just one school leaver going to a corner of an office and not being sure how to fit in," he says. "I've now got people on first, second, third, and fourth years of degrees. That depth of talent means there's always someone to ask for help and support. There's a great community."

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Moore says Bentley recruits the students and then places them with a university.

"I'm keen first and foremost that they're coming to Bentley and they're adding value. They're connecting with the brand, sustainability, and inclusivity that we offer -- and a lot of people are resonating with that idea."

When it comes to recruiting talent for the program, Moore says he's put a lot of effort into going to schools.

He typically looks for a solid grade in math, as both the degree and the work at Bentley are "stats-heavy".

Bentley is using the UK government's apprenticeship levy to help fund the program, which not only covers the cost of the student's undergraduate degree but also provides a wage during their time with the company, says Moore.

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"The starting salary is just over £20,000, but it increases considerably over the four years that they're working with us."

While other companies are also looking to develop next-generation professionals through degree apprenticeship programs, Moore says Bentley's approach is pioneering, particularly given its focus on hard-to-find data skills.

"I think we are fairly early to grasp the degree apprenticeship opportunity and do it at scale," he says. "While some people won't necessarily want to stay with Bentley at the end of their degree, they'll still have a great journey over the four years, and they'll contribute to the business."

Bev White, chief executive at Nash Squared, agrees that on-the-job training programs like the one that Bentley is pioneering are a great way for companies to find fresh talent and for young people to become exposed to new skills.

"Apprenticeships bang the door wide open for lots of people," she says. "I think they're a fantastic way of helping young people understand what a job looks like, what working in an organization feels like, and what managers will expect from you."

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Back at Bentley, Moore says it's important to recognize that apprenticeships are just one crucial element of a much broader approach to data capability within the business.

He's also increased internal experience through external hires: "The aim is to build that data science competence centrally, and also enable the rest of the business."

More generally, he's created an enterprise-wide data strategy at Bentley, which is built around four core pillars: governance; the data cloud, which is the technology stack that's required to use data effectively; the data dojo, which is his internal data literacy program; and enablement, which focuses on helping the data team to work with the rest of the business.

Moore pays specific attention to the data literacy program, which takes professionals in the business from white to black belt.

"Even with white belts, it's about getting people to ask basic questions, such as, 'Why is it important to have common terminology and to have some restricted fields?'" says Moore.

The aim is to ensure everyone in Bentley has a strong awareness of how data should be used, why it needs to be governed, and how you can use those information assets effectively.

"I've worked with different areas of the business to bring out data challenges, whether it's a visualization challenge or in data science as we get more mature," he says. "Let's say it's quality -- what can we do with quality data? How do we join together factory-quality and field-quality indicators and use that information to drive business decisions?"

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From the people joining Bentley as apprentices all the way up to senior managers, Moore's aim is to help people across the company make the most of data -- and that exposure could lead to some of those individuals rising to the upper echelons of the business one day.

"One thing I was very keen on when building the data strategy is that there's career progression," he says.

"The degree apprentices can see they can go into a mid-level, early career role, and then they can go on to a senior role as well. And, obviously, the pyramid ends ultimately with my role as CDO."

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