Interview: WDQC on the State of Workforce Data for Career Success

June 8, 2017

By Bill DeBaun, Director of Data and Evaluation

NCAN's work with Strada Education Network to help members incorporate career success into their college access and success services is new ground not only for the members but also for us here at NCAN. Webinars, blog posts, and a series of Spring Training events across the country have all helped to advance this work, which we believe can motivate students to both enroll in and complete a postsecondary program that can lead them to a personally and professionally satisfying career. We are pleased to be able to feature member programs that are, and have been, engaged in career success work and serve as great models for other member programs.

The newness of this work for NCAN encourages us to reach out to other partner organizations with great insight into workforce issues. One of those organizations is the Workforce Data Quality Campaign (WDQC). WDQC is a nonpartisan project of the National Skills Coalition that "promotes federal and state policies that provide stakeholders (students/workers, employers, policymakers, educators/practitioners) with actionable data that is effectively used to assess and improve our nation’s education and workforce strategies."

One of the key aspects of providing career success services is connecting students and their families with relevant data about the careers and skills that are in demand and likely to provide a pathway to professional success. I had a chance to ask questions of WDQC policy analyst Christina Lindborg Peña about the current state of national- and state-level workforce data and connecting college and career success. What follows below is a lightly edited transcript of our interview. Thank you to Christina for her time, thoughtful answers, expertise, and work in this area! 

NCAN has been gathering state-level resources on workforce projections, “hot jobs,” etc., and it seems like most states have at least some resources devoted to providing these data to the public. How would you assess the landscape for state-level workforce data systems?

The landscape for state-level workforce data systems continues to show improvement overall. You mention workforce projections. One of the indicators on WDQC’s 13-point Blueprint of key features of state-level data systems is advancing the use of labor market information (LMI).

WDQC’s latest annual survey shows that states have made a considerable amount of progress in using LMI. LMI is critical for helping workforce stakeholders make better economic and policy decisions that are relevant to their regions and major industries. We’ve also seen states make more progress in knowing whether graduates get jobs. Unfortunately, we’ve also seen some backsliding in state funding for data systems. This could hurt state workforce data progress in the future, especially as the prospects for federal funding have dampened.

What are some of the key questions that you think are still largely unanswered by available workforce data at the local, state, regional, or national levels? 

We have a number of questions that are important but difficult to answer because we aren’t able to make connections between data already collected. For example, what types of education and training are helping people to succeed in their careers? Which skilled positions are employers having a hard time filling, and what institutions might they look to for recruitment? We do not yet have comprehensive information available for all students on employment outcomes and earnings when they choose particular postsecondary programs in their home towns or across the country.

In education and workforce, there has been a growing realization that we need to help students, job seekers, employers, and policymakers make more informed decisions.

Certainly, these questions are being answered in some states and the national College Scorecard has some basic information based on more limited data. More integration of data between local, state, and federal agencies would also make it easier to answer questions about education and the workforce, and to answer them more comprehensively. This kind of modernization, however, will require more collaboration between government agencies and cooperation around data-sharing.

Over the past 15 or so years, especially, there has been a real push for attention to students’ educational outcomes and the management, collection, and analysis of data. Has there been a commensurate push on these fronts from the workforce data side?

Yes, certainly in the past several years we have seen more attention paid to workforce data, and much of this is an outgrowth of seeing what could be done with education data. Federal action was responsible for some progress in this direction. The Department of Labor’s Workforce Data Quality Initiative grant was an outgrowth of the success of the Department of Education’s Statewide Longitudinal Data System grants. The funding has allowed many states to more effectively link education to workforce data to support analysis. The issue of student loan debt and whether students can find jobs that help them to pay off these loans and make a living has also raised more awareness about the importance of capturing data on workforce outcomes.

The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) that passed with bipartisan support in 2014 also raised the bar for requiring performance information and has motivated agencies within states to collaborate more on using data to improve workforce development.

Related: How, if at all, would you say the “attention to data” trends are similar between education and workforce data? How do they differ?

I don’t know if I can answer the question about how “attention to data” trends differs without starting a fight somewhere in the data world, but I can offer some reflections on similarities.

In education and workforce, there has been a growing realization that we need to help students, job seekers, employers, and policymakers make more informed decisions. This requires analysis of data and then the packaging of this data in ways that are useful for them. I mentioned the College Scorecard, which is useful for prospective students, but it has its limitations. A growing number of states have been producing their own online tools that provide more detailed information down to the program level, such as Minnesota with its Graduate Employment Outcomes tool, and College Measures, which has produced some very easy-to-use interactive tools for states such as Colorado and Tennessee.

WIOA requires states to provide information to workforce system clients on the performance of training providers that are eligible for WIOA funds. This will help job-seekers decide which occupational training programs may be more successful for them. Some state agencies are also becoming savvier with using data to produce “dashboards” that workforce stakeholders, including policymakers, can use to get a visual snapshot of progress on key economic and workforce indicators and use those dashboards to inform their decision-making over time. Our parent organization, the National Skills Coalition, has assisted several states on these and other efforts to improve the use of data through its State Workforce and Education Alignment Project (SWEAP), and WDQC will also be working more to promote these kinds of tools.

In which ways do you see practitioners making good use of workforce data? Can you point us to some good use cases?

Practitioners are using labor market information to help job-seekers focus their career goals on jobs that are in demand. The Arkansas Career Pathways Initiative is one of the first that comes to mind, although there are similar programs across the country. They have been using data to shape successful education-to-career trajectories. These programs also add support services, such as child care or transportation assistance, to help people complete their programs. Oregon used labor market information to develop a tool for matching Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) clients with local jobs that require skills they already have or can develop quickly.

Our work with the Strada Education Network focuses around connecting career success with college access and success as a way to make students more aware of career opportunities and requirements. To what extent does WDQC see attention to career selection and workforce knowledge as connected to postsecondary enrollment and completion? 

In some ways, this issue is connected to the Scorecard idea. If students see a light at the end of the tunnel, and know that the investment of their time and money is likely to pay off, then it can help motivate them, but obviously, motivation isn’t enough to guarantee completion. Students need financial aid and other supports for managing life’s challenges. For connecting postsecondary to workforce success, students deserve more information than the rough idea that any four-year degree will be enough for them to succeed.

Maybe a four-year degree is an excellent choice for them if they are also willing to go on to graduate school, but not all students want to do that and it’s better for them to know this before they make decisions about college. It may be that a two-year degree, rather than a four-year degree, is what they need to secure a well-paying job that they like. They can boost their career with additional education later, and there should be information and appropriate supports available for these returning students should they decide to take such paths. They will likely end up in a better position than the person fresh out of college with a BA in a major that by itself doesn’t sufficiently signal some of the skills that are in high demand in the current job market.

For connecting postsecondary to workforce success, students deserve more information than the rough idea that any four-year degree will be enough for them to succeed.

NCAN members have come to take advantage of enrollment and completion data available through the National Student Clearinghouse. They can submit a student’s information and see that student’s postsecondary enrollments and completion. Do you have any thoughts about how practitioners can track outcomes for students who may be getting industry certifications or other sub-associate’s credentials? How challenging is this for outcomes tracking and reporting?

I’ll start with the challenging part first. Some students will take only one or two courses to pass industry certification exams that are administered separately from the institutions where they took those courses. Earning the industry certification may have resulted in a wage increase for them even though they did not earn a degree at the institution where they took those courses. To know whether this is happening, we need to be able to pull together information from across the institutions that they attended, their assessments by the certifying bodies, and relevant information from their wage records. We don’t have a system in place to link all of this information together, and surveys can be costly and inefficient for something like this.

WDQC has been involved with initiatives like Lumina Foundation’s Connecting Credentials, and the Workforce Credentials Coalition, which have been working to help stakeholders figure out how to more effectively pull this information together.

I see WDQC, through its state survey, has a robust state-level agenda for workforce data, and I know that you have a strong federal agenda as well. In the short term, what are some policy asks that you think are most-needed and also politically and practically achievable?

It’s harder than usual to know what is achievable in the current political environment, and I understand that I’m not the only one to say that. Progress in support of career and technical education (CTE) does seem to have bipartisan support, and I’m hopeful when it comes to reauthorization of the Perkins Career and Technical Education Act. In CTE legislation, we would like to see the alignment of definitions and metrics with WIOA where appropriate to facilitate better data on programs and outcomes, make reporting easier for providers, and make information more comparable - ultimately to benefit students and job-seekers. Higher Education Act reauthorization is also due, but it’s not clear when it will go live. We will continue to push for making workforce outcomes a bigger part of HEA reauthorization legislation, and I think there has been momentum growing in this direction.

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Thank you again to Christina, and be sure to check out WDQC's great work in this area!

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