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Changing the Game: Closing the Data Gap Will Help Narrow the Skills Gap

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The skills gap in the U.S. workforce is by now well documented and the consequences well known. Millions of Americans need jobs, yet employers are striking out when it comes to finding qualified candidates for the millions of positions available.

As the World Series approaches, it turns out that we have much to learn from the business of baseball. The early efforts of employers, higher education institutions and workforce development organizations to solve the skills crisis by joining forces are encouraging. But something important has been missing from most discussions: data.

Anyone who has seen the movie Moneyball or read the best-selling book will immediately catch the baseball connection. We need to be more like Billy Beane, the manager who brought his low-budget Oakland A's to the playoffs against the wealthiest teams in the league by focusing relentlessly on the most meaningful data about prospective recruits. Billy Beane changed the game by making strategic use of key data others ignored, such as the number of times a player actually got on base, as opposed to more popular metrics like home runs. Workforce development teams, of employers, community colleges and jobseekers should do the same -- focus intensively on key data about the labor market to build their futures.

The timing could not be better. Innovations in collecting and analyzing "real-time" labor market information are expanding at a remarkable rate. For the first time, artificial intelligence software can aggregate millions of pieces of data from online help-wanted advertising, tracking employer demand for staff sorted by occupation, industry and location, as well as certification requirements, wages and other pertinent information. New technology makes it possible to draw data from a much larger, and more current, pool than ever before. Combined with traditional labor market information (as provided by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and others), this data can be used to change the training and recruitment game.

New approaches are especially important for filling the middle-skilled jobs that are essential to fast-growing sectors of our economy, such as health care, information technology, high-tech manufacturing, utility work, and the trades. Finding qualified candidates in these areas has been a major problem for American employers. The positions require at least some postsecondary education, such as a certificate or an Associate's degree specific to the particular skill or occupation. Because of changes in technology, these jobs are changing rapidly, making it difficult for both jobseekers and educational institutions to keep up with employer specifications.

Real-time labor market data can help identify these new trends in job content and skill demands. Armed with this knowledge, employers can form strong partnerships with community colleges, where most middle-skill job training occurs, to make sound, strategic, data-driven decisions about how to train an effective local workforce. Data-focused partnerships that have started to develop are taking the guesswork out of identifying new program offerings and are already yielding useful results.

Jobs for the Future, a national nonprofit that aims to ensure low-income individuals gain the skills needed to succeed in our economy, created Credentials That Work to help community colleges, employers, states, and regions use real-time labor market data to substantially increase the number of successful jobseekers. Our data analyses provide a framework for helping redesign curricula and create new programs of study that align with the skills local employers are seeking. With ongoing access to up-to-date information, colleges can revise credential offerings as often as necessary to meet the evolving needs of the local economy.

These services can:

  • Help local employers confirm labor market opportunities, advise on curricula design, and assist in program development.
  • Help community colleges review curricula, align programs and develop new career pathways leading to in-demand jobs
  • Identify the skills students will need -- and the education and training pathways they can take -- to enter and advance in family-supporting careers.

Real-time data also can help gauge demand for general professional skills, sometimes called "soft skills," that many training programs don't cover. For example, employers often bemoan the dearth of communication and organizational abilities among job candidates. Real-time job postings can capture to what extent an aggregated group of employers is searching for workers with these competencies.

This level of detail is immensely useful for community colleges. A "green jobs" training program at LaGuardia Community College in New York City is a prime example of how colleges can put this data to work. The program prepares workers for careers in green construction, building maintenance, and sustainable landscaping, among other areas. Using real-time labor market data, staff discovered that better communication and customer service skills were in high demand, so they incorporated instruction in these areas into the curriculum. Now participants learn how to answer a phone professionally and handle complaints, in addition to wiring a building or installing solar panels.

When all of the players in workforce development collaborate -- and use real-time labor market data to make wise investments in education and training that match regional economic needs -- we'll be significantly more successful at forming the champion teams of our dreams.

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This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the "Close It" Summit, in conjunction with the upcoming "Close It" Summit (Nov. 5-7, 2013, in Washington, D.C.). The summit will address the U.S. job-market skills gap. For more information on the conference, please visit www.closeit.org.