12/20/2013 05:41 pm ET Updated Feb 19, 2014

Guess Who Has the Key to Washington's New 'College Report Cards' -- Before They Are Written?

As Washington plans a new program to issue 'report cards' on colleges and universities, they should probably know there's a group that is already sending CliffsNotes to every school in the country: employers.

In fact, hiring managers, Human Resources Directors, and VP's of Talent Acquisition are already sending daily memos, in granular detail, to the higher education community about exactly what they need. A generation ago, you'd call them the Want Ads or Classifieds -- and it would be fairly difficult to review enough at once to draw sound conclusions that could help shape a college degree curriculum. But in our data-driven era, we have some powerful tools for how to do that well.

Here's an example:

Last month, here at College for America (CfA) my colleague Melissa Goldberg and I published a 12-page industry trend report about the changing workforce landscape in the American health care industry: 'Rise of the Medical Assistant (and five other frontline & nonclinical healthcare jobs that are growing in number and complexity).' The industry trend report emerged from analysis we were undertaking on CfA's workforce strategies team to create a closer tie between our curriculum and the needs of industry.

In order to make this happen we dug into labor market data to identify growing industries and job titles within those industries with the greatest projected demand. Key sources included the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the State of Texas Detailed Work Activity Library, and O*NET, a national database of occupational information. We became more particular as we sifted through the different occupations to study. We focused on those that required some form of college credentialing, offer a family-supporting wage, and offer an opportunity to advance along a career path.

The six titles described in the industry trend report (medical office specialist, medical assistant, office supervisor, community health worker, medical records technician, and patient representative) all fit the bill. Once we identified the job titles we wanted to understand how closely our curriculum matched up to the skills and competencies these workers need. In so doing there were some interesting findings.

The responsibilities of these front-line workers have become increasingly complex. As the health care world becomes more reliant on electronic data, these workers must have technical know-how and computer skills. They also need knowledge of confidentiality and ethical rules and regulations. Furthermore, many of these workers are interfacing with the public to help advance healthy practices or connect patients with services.

CfA needed this information in order to weave it into our curriculum so that our students graduate armed with the skills they need to perform on the job.

This exercise is about much more than health care jobs alone. Such skills information that shows competencies that cut across such seemingly disparate job titles as office workers and medical assistants, can inform human resources strategies and the decisions of hiring managers. It can support the development of in-house training programs at hospitals and health centers. And, it can add context for educators and guidance counselors so they can better counsel students and job seekers preparing for careers.

You can read more about the specifics of our findings here. It is our hope that this report and others we plan to produce in the future will be the start of a conversation about a competency-based approach to education, training and job preparation. We are eager to hear your reactions. Do you agree with our findings? If so, how are you responding? Share your thoughts in the comments below.