New Program At St. Thomas Aims To Tackle Big Data

There's a growing need for workers that can interpret—and act on—big data in businesses.

Data is king. That’s increasingly the case for businesses throughout the Twin Cities as they try to squeeze out even the smallest insights to improve sales and profits. But while there are plenty of people with the technical know-how to interpret data, those that can translate it into a narrative are few and far between.
That prompted local employers to start prodding educational institutions. Late last month, the University of St. Thomas announced they were launching a new business analytics program to tackle the challenge.
“There’s a deep curiosity [in businesses] about how to tell a story around data,” said Carleen Kerttula, director of program innovation at UST’s Opus College of Business.
So what exactly is data analytics? New York University describes it as “the study of through statistical and operations analysis, the formation of predictive models, application of optimization techniques and the communication of these results to customers, business partners and colleague executives.” Or put more simply: Using data to find customer behaviors, tweak business operations based on that data and explain the results to leadership. 
While many business analysts end up at large companies—places like Target, Best Buy and Optum hire by the hundreds or thousands—the need spans the spectrum of company sizes.
Because of that, jobs openings in the field are expected to increase by 22 percent by 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. UST is responding to the call by offering a traditional—but flexible—master’s degree and a shorter graduate certificate program.
The school is aiming for two separate markets with its programs, according to program director John Olson. The first group is a typical one – fresh-faced marketing, financing and accounting graduates with limited or no work experience who are looking to get a leg up against other students.
The second group is those that are looking to retool their careers, Olson said. Given the layoffs at places like Target and 3M in the last year, there are many employees with more than a decade of experience, perhaps in middle management, with outdated skills. “The program lets them retool in a pretty easy way due to the flexibility,” he said.
Employees looking to freshen their skills and bolster their resume are increasingly heading back to school to take certificate programs, often with their company’s blessing—and accompanying tuition assistance.
Given strong industry demand, UST said they were able to work closely with employers and MinneAnalytics, a local industry group with over 6,000 members, to develop curriculum.
St. Thomas’ program joins a market with competition. The University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management launched its business analytics graduate program two years ago and has tinkered with it to market it toward working professionals – exactly the sort of people UST hopes to lure. Olson said that Carlson’s program is great, but talked up UST’s flexibility in choosing different specialties that the U’s program doesn’t offer.
But the biggest challenge ahead isn’t necessarily the competition, he said. Instead, it’s keeping up with a field that’s rapidly changing.
“This isn’t a static program at all,” he said. “One of the biggest challenges is [developing a program] for technology that will still be around in two to three years.”