Why is it so difficult to hire data people?

Daniel Liadsky
Managing Director

We’ve heard this story more often than we would like: enthusiastic non-profit decides they want to get serious about data. They post for a data manager position and get a discouraging high volume, low quality response, yet they persevere and manage to hire from the candidate pool. Early into the employee’s new tenure, it becomes clear that things aren’t working out and shortly thereafter the role is vacant. The once enthusiastic non-profit is left feeling dejected about the prospects of mastering their data.

So, why is this a common story?

  1. Non-profits aren’t always clear on what they’re hiring for.

    While it can be exciting to imagine an analyst diligently unlocking the secrets of your organization’s data, the reality is that when you are creating a brand new data role, you are usually far away from starting any real analysis. An analyst is a better fit for a mature, established position in an organization; therefore, non-profits would be better served to focus on hiring someone to conduct the start-up work for their first data role rather than the analytical tasks themselves.

    At its heart, getting a data role up and running is an information gathering and change management process that may not require any analytical time in the beginning. At least in the early days, what’s needed is a strategic thinker and exceptional communicator and, only as the job demands become more technical with time, should organizations contemplate transitioning to a conventional analyst role.

  2. The tech sector is an exceptionally competitive labour market segment that has been plagued by shortages in Canada’s major urban centres.

    And it’s not just the tech sector that’s hiring tech workers; non-profits are also competing with banks, healthcare, and all manner of start-ups.

    Unfortunately, we can’t offer any quick solutions to this systemic problem, but we can point to some opportunities as far as non-profits are concerned. For one, there’s a vibrant community of private sector professionals who volunteer their personal time to work on public benefit problems through hack-a-thons and other meetups. This points to a strong demand from tech workers to bring purpose to their work. Non-profits that are successful in articulating that purpose in their job postings – not just by restating the organization’s mission, but by defining one for the role itself – may have greater success in attracting analysts that are looking for a change.

    The other opportunity is to invest in talent. This is a longer-term commitment, but as we’ve covered already, an analyst’s skills aren’t always required in the start-up phase for a new data role. Consider giving that new recruit who has great strategic thinking and communications skills a longer runway to build their analytical capacity. This can be facilitated by contracting out technical work so that they only have to learn how to maintain and manage your data pipelines rather than build them.

  3. The non-profit sector doesn't have a mature ecosystem around data with an established pool of experienced people to draw from.

    Subject matter expertise and non-profit experience are important attributes for an effective analyst and unfortunately there aren’t many people available right now who share these attributes and have a technical skillset. It serves as a reminder that non-profits entering this space are early adopters and that hiring for a role that isn't commonplace yet in the sector brings unique challenges.

    This is an area which Purpose Analytics is committed to helping build over time, both by connecting people working with data so that they can excel in their roles and by supporting non-profits to recruit and retain them. We have seen other professions develop a healthy foothold in the non-profit sector before. For example, the accounting field has people who crossover from the private sector all the time, but it also has a stable pool of professionals who have decided to build their careers here and who have helped to establish standards of practice for the sector. Doing the same for data professionals should be our goal as a sector.

While the issues above point to the challenges that come with recruiting data people to the non-profit sector, they certainly aren’t unique to this type of role and they definitely aren’t insurmountable. Non-profits have never been shy about tackling big issues and building a data-informed sector should be no exception. We know the day will come when hiring a data person is as routine as hiring a bookkeeper and we look forward to seeing many more data people join the non-profit sector's ranks in the coming years.

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