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Big Data, Defined

In the hive of droning buzzwords that fill the air, find one buzzing louder than the rest: big data. One of those terms that gets traction before it’s even remotely understood by the folks it implicates, big data is an idea worthy of a big explanation.

ImageBig data, they say, is a gift to new business and entrepreneurship like no other. Its promises range from curing genetic disorders to powering self-driving cars. Speaking broadly, its most compelling calling card is that it’ll save your business money, make your operations more efficient and buff the precision of your marketing efforts to a sharp point. But what the hell is it?

• The billions of bits of data that are generated everyday inside the world’s great churning electronic engine have inherent value built into their bones. Each has plenty to say about individual behaviour and preferences — information that can be usefully applied to myriad business-securing purposes.

• The gist of big data is this: Culled from online and cellphone usage data, along with the sociographic information that credit cards and direct mail companies collect, there’s a whack more info floating around about us than ever. Better, it’s available for repurposing almost as soon as it’s generated. Cheaper storage, faster processing and more sophisticated algorithms mean everything — from your sudden interest in touch-up hair colour to your propensity for charity and your fondness for a certain gelato joint — can be digitized. Used cleverly, the information can be highly predictive of future behaviour, and could be used to anticipate consumer purchases, health needs and even changes in social status.

• Famously, an incident in the States last year revealed just how precise companies’ grasp of us is, when Target pitched baby products at a teen customer — based on its intelligent understanding of her recent in-store spends — whose family had yet to even learn of her pregnancy.

• Big data can help designers of consumer products develop more spot-on stuff by applying the customer preference data they’ve captured to the workshop.

• Big data can tailor marketing’s efforts minutely. InterContinental Hotels Group’s marketing department now has the slice-and-dice capacity to increase its count of seven or 15 customized marketing messages to its 71 million Priority Club rewards program members to more than 1,500, based on picayune factoids collected about them.

• In Brussels recently, a call went out for the world to be mindful of the risks implicit in the stuff, and insisted that governments develop ethical principles around how this revealing data about us and our families should be used by governments and private companies.

Keen Data Services helps organizations to transform all that big data into big insights about customer behaviour that can be meaningfully translated into tangible efficiencies.

Budget Overhaul Focuses on Skills Training

The federal budget finance minister Jim Flaherty wheeled out this past Thursday was the usual mix of retractions, readjustments and rewards of a rejigged strategy for getting Canada’s financial house in order. With $900 million in new spending and a projected $6.6-billion drop in the deficit for 2014, the newest financial blueprint is chockablock with measures designed to drive productivity and economic growth. 

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Prominent among them is the feds’ job skills training program. With an aim to give folks not part of the EI system (including older workers and Aboriginals) a means to find their way back into the labour market, the program features the following highlights:

• Currently, the federal government transfers $500 million a year to provinces to facilitate disenfranchised workers’ entry into the labour force; starting in 2014-15, $300 million of that fund will be diverted to the Canada Job Grant.

• This fund will pony up to $5,000 for individuals, provided the province matches that gift, to spend on retraining for people in industries coping with a shortage of skilled workers.

• All told, the grant will provide up to 130,000 Canadians a year with $15,000 for retraining.

• Of the new initiative, Flaherty told reporters: “For the first time, the Canada Job Grant will take the skills-training choices out of the hands of government and put them where they belong — in the hands of employers and Canadians who want to work.”

• Budget 2013 also includes the provision of $4 million over three years to reduce barriers to accreditation for apprentices.

Slow and Steady Win the Race — Especially in Transportation, Public Utilities

Depending on to whom you speak, Canada continues a steady, fragile ascent out of the economic pit into which it tumbled in the last couple of years at varying degrees of steepness. And while no one is predicting an overly explosive recovery across the economic board, certain sectors are undeniably poised for more growth than others, including transportation and public utilities.

A just-released Manpower Employment Outlook Survey declares that job prospects for the second quarter of 2013 are strongest for individuals looking for work in these industries.

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Indeed, the transportation and public utilities sector submitted its most hopeful forecast since the second quarter of 2007, and the most optimistic of any sector for this quarter. Employers in this arena anticipate a strong hiring climate characterized by a net employment outlook (the difference between the percentage of employers hiring and the percentage of employers cutting back) of 22 percent, one percentage point more than was forecast for last quarter and six percentage points more than the same period last year.

And if you live in Atlantic or Western Canada where the labour markets are expected to remain the strongest in the country for the second quarter, you’re doubly blessed.

Other sectors anticipating favourable hiring conditions over the next three months include construction (reporting a net employment outlook of 17 percent), wholesale and retail trade (16 percent), services (13 percent), and finance, insurance and real estate (10 percent).

Overall and with seasonal variations excluded from the data, Manpower’s net employment outlook anticipates second-quarter growth of 12 percent in this country. Some 20 percent of the 1,900-plus Canadian employers the survey asked plan to bring on more bodies in Q2. While this represents a slight drop from what was reported in the previous quarter, economists confirm that it perpetuates the trend of reasonable hiring activity witnessed over the course of the last year.

Seniors and Employment: Working It

Your grandparents did it. So did Lee Iacocca and Johnny Carson. Hell, even the Pope retired from his job. But whether the rest of us will ourselves one day draw a curtain on our working lives remains in some question.

According to a 2012 TD Economics Observation report overseen by Statistics Canada, since the economy started picking up its broken bits in mid-2009, that segment of the population aged 60 and older have snapped up a full third of all net new job gains. More than that, workers over age 70 gained 37 percent more employment during the same period.

When you consider that these stooped figures represent just eight percent of the workforce, this emerges as a significant piece of news.

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These folks are taking jobs in a range of sectors, with particular emphasis on the retail market. Would-be retirees have also created employment gains in the professional, health-care, scientific and technical services sectors.

Lots of these workers are also striking out on their own. A study published by CIBC last fall discovered that the fastest growing slice of the entrepreneurial pie — by a long shot — is being devoured by older workers setting up their own businesses.

That such a portion of recent labour market gains is attributable to the return of the more mature employee — or, just as common, his stubborn refusal to leave the race in the first place — is credited to lots of reasons. Certainly, these individuals have made practical choices to keep income flowing or bulk up their pensions. In other instances, they’ve stayed in the workforce simply out of preference.

Some resources for older job hunters:

• Seniors 4 Seniors (www.seniors4seniors.com) is a unique community service-oriented business concept that matches younger seniors with time on their hands with older seniors who need help.

• Top Employers for Canadians Over 40 (www.canadastop100.com/older_workers) is a website celebrating those workplaces across the country that do the most for employees in the “second half of their careers.”

• Service Canada Employment for Seniors site (www.servicecanada.gc.ca/eng/audiences/seniors/employment.shtml) is a collection of data pertaining to the subject of older Canadians working.