States Compete for Top Data Science Talent

As more and more data government data becomes available, states struggle to hire the right professionals to make sense of it.

by / October/November 2017
Data could change the course of education for years to come. That makes the emerging role of the data scientist especially important.

States have long competed for jobs and investment, and this dynamic is now playing out in the race to be the state with the most data scientists — the highly sought-after professionals who combine the technical knowledge needed to wrangle large data sets, the analytical expertise necessary to make sense of all that information and the social skills needed to communicate these insights to their colleagues. The appeal is obvious. Not only do data scientists command top salaries — Glassdoor reports that the national average salary for the position is $121,000 — but states with high numbers of data scientists employed in local industries are also well-positioned to be more competitive in these sectors.

Data scientists are solving a hard problem: How can organizations convert the rapidly growing deluge of data into insights that will make them more successful? But recruiting data scientists is a challenge for most firms — McKinsey estimates that by next year, the United States will face a shortage of 140,000 to 190,000 data scientists. Moreover, this problem gets even worse further up the org chart: The U.S. needs nearly 1.5 million data-literate managers who can make use of the insights produced by the data scientists.

Unlike some professions where the distribution of jobs is spread fairly evenly across the United States — for example, the concentration of elementary school teachers does not change much from California to New York — the distribution of data scientists varies considerably. While no source gives a definitive answer, a variety of information gives us clues about current trends.

First, we can look at the number of people working in closely related professions, such as computer scientists and statisticians, as a share of total workers. According to the Center for Data Innovation, Maryland, Virginia and Delaware top the list for employing workers in statistics and database management, and Washington, Massachusetts and Virginia lead in software service jobs, such as computer programming and software development. North Dakota, Wyoming and South Dakota, along with Mississippi, Idaho and Wyoming, rank last in these two areas, respectively.

Second, we can see which states have the most job listings for data scientists as a share of total job listings. On this metric, Washington is the clear front-runner, with Maryland, Massachusetts and Virginia as its closest peers. At the back of the pack, Louisiana, Montana and Mississippi have the lowest share of data science job listings.

Third, we can determine which states have the most active data science community by measuring participation in data science events. The top three states for this metric are New York, California and Massachusetts — all states with large metropolitan tech hubs. They have thriving data science communities where knowledge-sharing, network-building and collaboration are common. But data scientists in Mississippi, South Dakota or Wyoming are likely pretty lonely, as none of these states has an active data science community.

The biggest question for most state policymakers is how to change the status quo. One important factor is the pipeline for data scientists. At the high school level, the best metric for whether schools are preparing students for careers in data science is the percent of students taking computer science and statistics advanced placement (AP) tests and these students’ test scores. Massachusetts leads the nation with the highest ratio of students taking the computer science or statistics AP tests compared to other tests. However, while its students perform well, it is not the highest ranked. This distinction goes to Utah and Illinois, which tie for the top position, though both states have a lower ratio of students taking these tests. This suggests that these states need to find a way to scale their programs to more students. Finally, some states, such as Mississippi, Louisiana and New Mexico, have few students taking these tests, and those who do perform relatively poorly, on average.

As states vie to be the front-runner in data science, regardless of position, every state should recognize the importance of data science jobs and grow their data science talent if they want to be competitive in the data economy.

Note: Rankings in this article are from the report The Best States for Data Innovation published by the Center for Data Innovation.

Daniel Castro Contributing Writer

Daniel Castro is the vice president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) and director of the Center for Data Innovation. Before joining ITIF, he worked at the Government Accountability Office where he audited IT security and management controls.