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These creative problem solvers make profound contributions – and good pay

November 23, 2022
Natasja Iversen and Kurt Pflughoeft
Natasja Iversen, Oshkosh, liked problem-solving games and math. The senior, pictured with Kurt Pflughoeft, director of the UWSP Center for Data Analytics, is majoring in data analytics for a high-demand career and great return on her educational investment.

Natasja Iversen loved math in high school. She took a computer programming class and became interested in a career path that combined them. “I found data analytics was a happy medium,” said the senior from Oshkosh.

“I always liked problem-solving games. I like to visualize how to improve a process,” Iversen said. UW-Stevens Point was the right-size university, recommended by friends from a summer camp.

Grace Nemecek, Wrightstown, wanted to pursue her love of golf with a degree that would lead to a high-paying job in a stable profession. She explored data analytics, and with help from faculty, found opportunities to dive into analysis projects.

She worked on a project with the Athletic Training program, which was researching a virtual reality (VR) simulation with the UWSP hockey teams. She analyzed various aspects of player metrics, including reaction times, to determine if VR training could improve on-ice performance and reduce concussions.

Applied learning experience is key in UW-Stevens Point’s data analytics program, which encourages students to pursue projects that pique their curiosity. Students learn programming principles with a focus on analysis and how to solve business problems.

Without data analysis, gut instinct is often used for unstructured decisions, said Kurt Pflughoeft, the Sentry Insurance Endowed Chair of Computational Analytics. “Unfortunately, this process results in the decisions being right only about 50 percent of the time.

“The goal of data analysts and data scientists is to increase the performance of the decision-making process. The proof for the success of our data analytics program is with our graduates and interns who are having a profound impact on a diverse set of organizations,” he said.

Pflughoeft helped shape UW-Stevens Point’s data analytics program, which was launched in 2017 with a major gift from Sentry Insurance.

Data analysts are problem solvers, driven by creativity and curiosity, said Nik Butz, Sentry Insurance Endowed Chair of Business Analytics. “Do you want to find a new creative way to think about a problem. Are you curious how it came about, how we can do it better?”

Health care, financial services, insurance, government, technology, law enforcement and retail are among the industries who rely on insights from data analysis to reduce risks, save money, improve marketing, drive growth and build customer satisfaction.

“You have to like to play with the numbers and interact with people. That’s a big part of the job,” Pflughoeft said. “It’s talking to the decision makers, figuring out their objectives and goals, prepping the data, performing analysis and making recommendations.  In essence, it’s a holistic effort to try to solve a problem.” Pflughoeft said.

“Having some logic abilities is good,” he continued. “You don’t have to be a mathematician, but you do have to be meticulous. Paying attention to details will allow one to discern patterns and relationships by analyzing the data.”

UW-Stevens Point’s data analytics program provides a well-rounded experience, Butz said. “What makes our program stand out is the business core. You learn to talk with other functions within the business. You learn to be a team player. You learn communication, you learn about presenting, you learn about leadership.  

“One of the main focuses of the School of Business and Economics is to emerge career-ready with in-demand skills,” Butz said. “You can find a job in so many fields, leveraging your skills in any area of interest you have.”

Jack Kuerschner, Neenah, was long interested in math and wanted to learn more about programming.  When he transferred to UW-Stevens Point “this was one of the first majors I saw that would place me in the School of Business while also giving me the opportunity to try some programming,” he said.

He soon learned about Sentry Insurance and its Senior Capstone Project for data analytics students to learn while working at the company. Kuerschner, Iversen and Nemecek all were selected to be part of the Sentry Capstone projects.

Return on her educational investment was important to Iversen. “If I’m going to college, I didn’t want a huge debt, and I wanted to pay it off quickly. An affordable school like UW-Stevens Point and a career with high income will help me achieve that,” she said

She graduates in December and already has a job. She will continue with Hartland Business Systems, Little Chute, where she interned earlier this year. Her job involves back-end coding, using Power BI for clients in grocery, hospital and other businesses. She enjoys examining data sets to pull out patterns and adjusting variables to make predictive models.

“There are so many opportunities for careers in data analysis. Name a company, and they probably have a need for data analytics,” Iversen said.

Starting salaries for data analysts in Wisconsin are $65,000-$70,000.

Grace Nemecek, Pointer golf team
Golf and the data analytics program attracted Grace Nemecek to UW-Stevens Point. The 2021 graduate works for LexisNexis.
(Photo courtesy of UWSP Athletics/Kylie Bridenhagen)

High salary and job security also drove Nemecek. The one-on-one instruction, opportunities to work on projects independently and ability to network professionally were huge factors in her success at UW-Stevens Point, she said. After graduating in 2021 and completing a master’s degree in Michigan in 2022, she is now a data scientist with LexisNexis Risk Solutions, an international company. Based in Minneapolis, she works in Governance to build and fraud and credit predictive models.

Kuerschner is a data analyst with Sentry’s Contact Center, managing datasets and creating dashboards to help business areas gather insight into their call data, he said. “We help them identify trends, areas for improvement, and metrics that allow them to take steps to improving the call experience for associates and the customer.”

Students can choose from opportunities locally, regionally or nationally at small firms where they will do a wide array of activities or opt to have a more specialized focus in larger companies, Pflughoeft said.

Data is all around, Butz noted, citing social media, GPS tracking and cell phones. “Our students have been doing stuff with computers their whole lives. Isn’t it exciting to learn a new way to apply it, one that contributes to society at the same time? Data gives us new understanding, and for those who are truly curious, this is a really cool opportunity to understand more about their world. We’ll give you the tools to do that.”