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TechVibe Radio

Feb 22, 2024

Started in the heart of the COVID pandemic, the University of Pittsburgh’s Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business Super Analytics Challenge was a novel way to connect graduate school students and the corporate community to solve society's biggest issues with data analytics.

Over the last three years, the challenge has addressed homelessness, food insecurity and access to mental health.

This year, the Challenge expanded to include more schools with 10 teams of five students looking to address the workforce shortage in southwestern Pennsylvania’s advanced manufacturing industry.

“The big step we took this year was to invite other universities to partner with us, including Carnegie Mellon University, West Virginia University, Penn State University and Duquesne University. So we've doubled the number of students involved in the challenge. And that's really exciting,” said Christopher Barlow, Director of Career Management and Corporate Engagement at Katz. “Because we're commingling students together, we have students not competing from CMU or WVU. Rather, these graduate students have to learn to operate as a team with really varied backgrounds.”

Barlow explained why the Challenge took on the workforce development for manufacturing:

“Workforce is both a micro- and macro-level issue. So at a micro level, it's about giving people opportunities, right, giving people purpose in life. That's what a career is. It's about giving people an opportunity to have a meaningful place in our society. At a macro level, we also know that workforce and jobs brings prosperity, it brings wealth to families, it supports education, it supports our tax base. So you know, having good career opportunities for people and our communities lifts all boats. And unfortunately, right now, we have a critical shortage of enough skilled or reskilled people to meet the need.”

The student teams harnessed their skills and experiences in tandem with expert partners (corporate, government and NGOs) to apply data analytics to generate implementable ideas on how to address the workforce issue over a three-week time frame.

Students participated in professional development opportunities on topics such as team building, storytelling, analytics tools and the consulting process. 

“To be honest, I'm not much of a actual data analytics guy. And so I wanted to kind of push myself a little bit and I'm happy I signed up,” said Challenge Participant Thomas Leech. “I've just really enjoyed working with other universities. The engagement from all of the local partners and just them being willing to teach us is eye opening. You can get stuck in your silos and you're kind of afraid to ask questions. Whereas this challenge, there were no stupid questions!”

Challenge Participant Carlos Salazar was equally thrilled with his experience at the Challenge:

“Sometimes when you educate yourself for life, you're thinking about skills, and you're thinking about maybe knowledge and hard knowledge. But there's another dimension. And that is a cultural dimension. For me, it has been a really amazing way to learn a whole different way on how we can harmonize. And we can overcome differences in order to work together and to have a great product. And, a great outcome at the end.”

The judging panels had some tough choices to make this year. Judges all agreed that each team came up with some pretty amazing and implementable solutions.

“I sat through five of the 10 teams. And every one of them, these students are just unbelievable. They're bringing their talents, experience, world-class analytics, and some really innovative solutions to the table,” said Challenge Judge Albrecht Powell of Accenture. “And I love the fact that this year, we brought all the universities together. These ideas are just amazing. It's like I'm trying to figure out where I want to go take my own money, and sponsor some of these.”

Challenge Judge Bob Schukai of MasterCard had similar thoughts:

“Getting to be a judge is amazing, because I honestly don't know what to expect. And I say this every every year because it's similar to this program UK Apps for Good that I support. These kids across the UK are coming up with ideas to solve local challenges. You have to just park any preconceived notions of how you would solve the problem. Because what we're going to see in the room in the rooms today collectively, is probably going to be something that none of us had ever thought of before.”

A winner had to emerge and this year Team 10 took home the honors. Their plan leverages remote training applications. And they hope to work with manufacturers to bring needed training right to schools where students will be able to train on actual simulators. And once certified, they could be hired.

“First of all, big credit to my team! This was not a single solution, single source idea here. But I mentioned in my presentation, I had some friends that have done a project similar to this in remote training applications,” said James Cole. “I decided to fold it into advanced manufacturing. The technology is out there to be able to train people from wherever. And if we can deploy that to as many companies as possible to do as much good as possible, that’s the game right?”

The dust has settled in this year’s Super Analytics Challenge and minds are already spinning to build on the success and make a bigger impact next year.

“We  have phenomenal industry partners and community partners. So we're all coming together to address very complex societal issues, of course, this year is workforce development,” said Rebecca Badawy, Associate Dean at Katz. “And so what I think is wonderful about this challenge is that I think we're trying to address things that people don't historically associated with business schools. We're trying to address the societal problems, which, you know, we're often sort of looked at as business professionals or educators as folks that are just trying to drive profit. But this is showing that no, we're using our knowledge to try and address really important problems.”

Job Fair: Win-Win for Companies and Students

New for 2024, the Katz Graduate School hosted the Graduate Technology & Analytics Job Fair in collaboration with the Pittsburgh Technology Council, for all regional graduate students. 

“What better way to stimulate workforce connections than to hold a jobs fair specifically focused on solving innovative problems in technology, data, and analytics,” says Christopher Barlow, Director of Career Management and Corporate Engagement at Katz.

Using business as a force for social good is a guiding principle at Pitt Business. Barlow continues, “This year’s Challenge was a win-win for both students and the community. The students learned how to use data and analytics to solve a pressing business problem, and both businesses and job seekers benefit from this research and possible solutions.”