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Jennifer Rosenberg Baker, director of IBM’s centre for advanced visualization in Ottawa, tells young people that if they enjoy solving puzzles or detecting patterns, a career in data analytics can take them into practically any field that interests them.Blair Gable/The Globe and Mail

It could well be the fastest-growing job market most have never heard of, with demand so intense that the number of people employed in the field doubled in 2011 and will likely double again in four years.

This month alone, IBM Canada, Bank of Montreal, McCain Foods, Future Shop, Rogers Communications and the Royal Canadian Mint are among the private and public sector giants jostling for data analytics specialists on the online job boards.

What's a data analytics specialist? They turn information into gold, using advanced computer technology to mine and analyze vast amounts of data from disparate sources – presenting their insights so users can make better decisions and forecasts. The applications are endless.

But with an unemployment rate of less than 1 per cent, "the supply stream is fully tapped," says Sharif Faisal, a labour market analyst with the Information and Communications Technology Council, a non-profit research and advisory body based in Ottawa.

"Current trends indicate that 4,000 new positions are being created annually, perhaps significantly more … Supply of data analytics skills is obviously struggling to keep up," says Mr. Faisal, who projects a shortfall of at least 20,000 of these specialists over the next five years. The need is such that companies such as IBM send emissaries into universities, colleges, even junior high schools.

Demand has exploded across all industries.

Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children, for example, uses technology developed in conjunction with IBM and the Ontario University Institute of Technology, to monitor subtle changes in the blood pressure, heart rate and respiration of premature babies – flagging potential problems before symptoms become apparent.

In retail, U.S. discounter Target, tracks customers' purchasing patterns through its REDcard loyalty program in order to make direct marketing pitches. It also, famously, uses an analysis of buying habits to predict when a customer might be pregnant and receptive to marketing for maternity and baby goods.

And online video provider Netflix used data gleaned from the viewing habits of its millions of subscribers to create the hit series House of Cards last month, reflecting viewers' penchant for political drama and the actor Kevin Spacey.

"This is what is up and coming. It's an exciting place to be," says IBM Canada hiring manager Laurine Peters.

What it takes

New entrants to the field "have a leg up" if they have graduated from a post-secondary program tailored to analytics, although that is not the only route in.

Jennifer Rosenberg Baker, director of IBM's centre for advanced visualization in Ottawa, studied international development in university, but also took computer programming, business and design courses.

The key is to develop a combination of business knowledge, technical expertise and – in Ms. Rosenberg Baker's realm – a flair for design that helps people visualize the meaning of the data. "There are not enough visual designers … that is a skill that is really, really hot right now."

Ms. Rosenberg Baker often visits Grade 7 and 8 classes, telling students not to "self-select" out of math and science at high school. If they enjoy solving puzzles, detecting patterns, teasing out trends, then a career in data analytics can take them into practically any field, she says.

Universities are developing specialized programs in business analytics at the undergraduate and post-graduate level. There are also a growing number of continuing education opportunities.

Nova Scotia Community College and Nova Scotia's universities have joined forces to create a centre of excellence in analytics education. "Today's students need continuous preparation for a digital world that blends both business and technology skills," said Don Bureaux, president of Nova Scotia Community College.

On-the-job training

Typically, recruiters are looking for candidates with backgrounds in computer science, mathematics, statistics or business – preferably with experience. But many employers are willing to train.

IBM Canada offers internships and career development programs for recent graduates – and support the field through donations to analytics research and education at the university and college level.

The role requires so much more than a mastery of algorithms, coding and complex computer systems, IBM's Ms Peters says. There are opportunities for people who want to apply the technology to marketing innovations, fraud prevention, more efficient energy use. "It crosses all industries and boundaries."

Ms. Peters often cites the preemies at Sick Kids as an example of type of difference that data analytics specialists can make. "When you talk about things like that, people get it. It's like, 'wow.' "

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