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Tuesday, 14 Apr 2015

John Hopes

One of the strategic aims of the OR Society is to ensure that operational researchers are knowledgeable, well-trained and in good supply. With regard to the supply part of this aim, whether or not you believe that it is consistent with our status as a charity or whether indeed we can do much to influence it, it doesn’t seem to be an area where we could claim great recent success, to put it mildly. And this is also at a time when demand has never been stronger.

As evidence of this strength of demand, the membership of the Heads of OR Forum (HORF) is at an all-time high (thanks to the efforts of John Ranyard as its secretary), and most of the members seem to be recruiting heavily, as they have been for some time now. Beyond this in the world of Big Data, analytics and data science the demand for OR and other highly quantitative skills is expanding rapidly while supply seems to be struggling to keep pace. In fact, one of the ways that OR could take more of a leading role in analytics and data science would be by becoming the major source of supply for talent. In that respect, our underperformance on the supply side couldn’t really have come at a worse time.

Taking a broader view of demand, and linking back to a more general point I made in my last leader, the UK is lagging many of its major competitors in productivity, and one of the key factors here is shortage of the more highly productive skills such as those possessed by OR professionals. This is therefore an issue with a broader economic impact.

Against this backdrop it is worth looking at OR MSc courses. Twenty years ago these provided a core component of the supply of OR professionals in the UK, although there were also a variety of other sources. In the UK our Universities provide some of the best OR MSc level training in the world. Unfortunately the beneficiaries of this are now largely overseas students, with fewer and fewer OR MScs coming onto the UK market. In fact there is a double whammy here – we are equipping our competitors with these valuable skills at a time when we are producing far too few for the UK market.

Unsurprisingly HORF has identified the shortage of MScs (and the broader supply problem) as an issue once again. We have been here before of course; and many of us are still bruised by the last failed attempt to retain EPSRC funding for MScs. But the demand pressures are bringing this issue back up the agenda, despite the fact that employers have over the years found alternatives, including hiring first degree graduates and training them themselves or even hiring some of the overseas MScs who want to stay on in the UK. This is, however, just a workaround for the supply crisis, and is not sustainable if demand soars as anticipated.

But what can the OR Society do to achieve its aim on the adequate supply of operational researchers? Particularly given that it is a combination of the actions, choices and behaviours of other stakeholders that results in the supply coming out of the Universities and into the UK market, where these stakeholders include the Universities, the research councils, the government through its education policy and the students themselves. The OR Society does, however, have the power and ability to influence all of these in a variety of different ways and perhaps should prioritise doing so.

In addition, in our constitution, we include among the list of activities of the Society the awarding of bursaries and scholarships. Perhaps we should intervene more directly in the supply of operational researchers by sponsoring or part-sponsoring MScs. This seems to be very much aligned with our charitable status, particularly if such sponsorship is targeted at those who are unlikely to be able to afford self-funding. Who knows? Perhaps the sponsored students could also conduct charitable projects for us as part of the deal. Our current strong revenue flow from our journals has probably caused us to ease back on seeking additional sources of revenue. If, however, we had a need to fund additional charitable activities it feels likely that we could increase revenue to cover them.

Whether or not, however, we intervene directly through sponsorship, we can certainly influence others to do so. In addition, we could promote the provision of lower cost alternatives to the MSc route, potentially including online qualifications. Plus we could work more with first degree students as we have done so successfully with schools to point them in the direction of a career in OR.

Whatever we choose to do, though, I am sure that there are no easy answers to this issue. But I am equally sure that ensuring an adequate supply of operational researchers has become a top priority for our profession and for the Society.

 
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