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Improving data skills in the engineering sector

Thu Mar 25, 2021
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We’ve been looking at how we can support the engineering sector to build data literacy and skills

As part of wider work with Lloyd’s Register Foundation to increase access to data and drive innovation in the engineering sector (see our joint manifesto for sharing engineering data), we have been looking at how we can support the sector to build data literacy and skills. 

In our recent report Data skills and knowledge in the engineering sector we made a set of recommendations concerning the next steps required to improve the level of data skills and knowledge across the engineering sector. One of the core recommendations was to explore opportunities for adding data skills to existing continuing professional development (CPD) offerings, provided by professional engineering bodies.

At the beginning of February 2021, the ODI and Lloyd’s Register Foundation convened representatives from three major institutes which provide CPD opportunities for the engineering sector, to explore opportunities for improving the provision of data skills and literacy support. We framed discussions around three key questions:

What data skills and knowledge are needed to improve access, use and sharing of data in the engineering sector?

Participants felt that data skills were becoming increasingly important for people working in the engineering sector. In one example, a participant explained how collecting and sharing data about Covid-19 patient needs has become fundamentally important in helping engineers to enable better provision of ventilators by integrating the need within hospital design as the pandemic has gone on.

Using the ODI’s Data Skills Framework, the group discussed the balance of data skills that an organisation needs to collect, maintain, use and share data effectively. Participants recognised the importance of technical data skills, such as using platforms or analysing data, in engineering roles such as clinical engineering. But they were less familiar with strategic data skills that might benefit an organisation, such as managing organisational change or delivering policies with data. The group acknowledged that building strategic data skills is important to do in parallel with building technical skills, to ensure that the curation and use of data is valued at all levels of an organisation.

How well are data literacy needs already supported?

Our recent discussions with representatives from the engineering community (see our report on  Data skills and knowledge in the engineering sector) revealed that many feel that the level of data skills and knowledge across the whole sector needs to be improved, and requires more investment. Most CPD providers offer training and accreditation that applies specifically to a job role or domain, but these courses do not usually help people to consider how skills to access, use and share data applies to their context.

People working in engineering organisations need to understand how the collection, maintenance, use and sharing of data affects their day to day work. To help bridge this gap participants from this latest roundtable suggested CPD providers could help to show how insights from data can be relevant to strategic decisions and priorities within each facet of engineering – this type of role has been referred to as a ‘data translator’.

Many CPD providers are already in a good position to provide relevant sector or role-specific guidance, and could take on the role of ‘data translator’. This would need investment of time and resources for upskilling the data skills and literacy of their own training staff. In some cases, where customers require more niche guidance they could partner with third party suppliers who have the relevant expertise.

What steps do we need to take to improve the support available around data skills and knowledge in the sector?

The first step for many CPD providers will be to examine existing data skills and data literacy gaps within their own offerings. Participants of the roundtable suggested that while they were aware that their courses and training did not cover data skills in detail, they were not sure where they needed to focus on to get started. Leaders within CPD organisations can support this change by investing in the data literacy of learning and development specialists, who develop the courses and deliver the training to customers in the engineering sector.

By building data skills and literacy internally, CPD providers will be better equipped to assess where modules covering access, use and sharing of data can be embedded in existing training and courses, in order to help the engineering sector better understand where better data practices can support their work.

This roundtable was delivered in support of the ODI and Lloyd’s Register Foundation’s joint manifesto for sharing engineering data, which identifies a set of principles that will help increase access to data and drive innovation in the engineering sector.

We would encourage universities, research organisations and professional bodies which deliver CPD support for the engineering sector to consider how they can support implementation of this manifesto, by building data into their existing offerings. If you work for one of these organisations, and are interested in finding out more about how you can build data skills and literacy for your organisation, please get in touch.