Real-Time Jobs Data Show Community Colleges What Employers Need Now

Mark Abramson for The Chronicle

A student in LaGuardia Community College's green-jobs training program learns to use a buffer.The program's developers used new software to pinpoint the skills employers were seeking.
August 13, 2012

When Kate F. Kitchener set out to design a green-jobs training program at LaGuardia Community College, she began by taking the pulse of local industry, but not in the usual way.

Rather than poring over labor-market reports—the most recent of which are months old—and cold-calling local employers, Ms. Kitchener used software that gathers up-to-date information on hiring trends and job requirements. In just a few minutes, she says, she was able to "see the skill set that thousands of employers were looking for."

With that in mind, she chose concentrations for the program and tailored the curriculum for each one. That alignment, she says, will improve graduates' chances of finding work.

Community colleges are under pressure these days to produce graduates who can land jobs. But identifying which occupations and skills are in demand is often easier said than done. LaGuardia, a City University of New York campus in Long Island City, is one of 10 community colleges across six states experimenting with software that collects real-time labor-market data, part of a project led by Jobs for the Future, a Boston-based nonprofit group that studies education and work-force issues.

The software scours job ads from thousands of online sources, such as job boards, employers' Web sites, newspapers, and government agencies. The tool then aggregates and analyzes the information to produce a database of current job opportunities, including which companies have the most openings and what exactly job announcements say.

The technology is relatively new, but an increasing number of state governments, local work-force boards, and economic-development agencies are already using it to try to improve the economy. Higher education has less experience collecting real-time labor-market data, so how far the information could go toward developing and tweaking occupational training programs is still unknown.

One goal of the Jobs for the Future project, which began last year, is to evaluate how colleges are using the software, how the data gathered differ from traditional labor-market information, and how the two can complement each other.

"So much of the labor-market information out there typically looks backwards," says Nick Kremer, a former dean at Cerritos College, in Norwalk, Calif., which is part of the project. But the new software can keep up with rapid economic shifts toward new industries and skills, he says: "This has much more immediacy."

The state of the economy has made community colleges' pivotal role in training America's work force more important than ever. Nearly 13 million Americans are unemployed, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, while many companies have open positions they say they can't find workers qualified to fill. Almost half of employers report having a hard time hiring, citing applicants' lack of talent and training, a survey in May by the ManpowerGroup showed.

Real-time labor-market data might not be the solution, but the software has the potential to help fix the apparent mismatch between colleges' training and employers' needs, proponents say. The new technology may help make training programs more efficient, says Maria K. Flynn, a vice president at Jobs for the Future. "We don't see this as a silver bullet," she says, "but a strong tool for colleges to have in their toolbox."

Charting the Data

A core function of community colleges is to understand the business needs of their regions. Traditionally, administrators consult government databases on the skills needed to perform thousands of jobs, and advisory boards of local business leaders provide valuable guidance. Colleges also regularly turn to government statistics on employment conditions, as well as long-term occupational projections.

Those methods have proved challenging, however, for colleges trying to stay current. "It's been risky to use data that old," says Kenneth L. Ender, president of Harper College, in Palatine, Ill. "But it's all we've had up to now."

Relying on outdated information could lead a college, for example, to offer a program its region no longer needs. A decision like that can have lasting negative effects on students, who may not be able to find employment after they graduate.

At Harper, the real-time-data project was a fortuitous turn for a new partnership. About a year ago, a group of companies had gone to the college for help with what they described as a crisis in advanced manufacturing, says Mr. Ender. They were concerned over the lack of qualified candidates for open jobs in the field, which uses cutting-edge technology to improve manufacturing processes.

Administrators used the software to verify the number of unfilled job openings in advanced manufacturing across Illinois: at last count, 8,142. The Illinois Manufacturers' Association estimates that, as workers retire, an additional 75,000 jobs will open in the next five years.

So starting this fall, Harper plans to offer an advanced-manufacturing program in partnership with more than 50 local businesses. Students will be able to complete a paid internship and earn a certificate in manufacturing production in less than a year. They can also pursue specialized certification in areas such as metal fabrication and precision machining.

"If not for the data," Mr. Ender says, "we would not have started the program."

The colleges participating in Jobs for the Future's pilot project, financed by the Joyce Foundation and the Lumina Foundation for Education, are not paying for the software right now. Its cost can range from $5,000 to $10,000 for a one-year license, according to a report by Jobs for the Future. Burning Glass Technologies, the vendor for the pilot project and one of a few in the market, declined to disclose its rates. Given that higher-education budgets have been slashed in recent years, paying for the software may be challenging for community colleges.

But its information is valuable. At LaGuardia, it swayed Ms. Kitchener, sustainability coordinator at NY Designs, a campus business incubator that houses the green-jobs training program. The program, a partnership with Queens Botanical Garden, offers three concentrations: green cleaning and housekeeping, waste management, and sustainable landscape design and maintenance.

Ms. Kitchener initially planned to include 10 hours of occupational-safety training as part of the sustainable-landscaping curriculum, but after reviewing job posts collected by the software, she decided against it. "What I found was that a lot of the companies wanted people who had sales and customer-service training," she says. So she swapped in two days of that training and eliminated the safety instruction.

The green-jobs program is aimed at helping the unemployed get back to work as quickly as possible. Each track lasts two weeks, with time divided between classes at LaGuardia and a practicum at the botanical garden. There, students get a chance to try out techniques they've learned about, such as buffing floors with nontoxic cleaners, composting food scraps, and landscaping with native plants.

Aisha L. Smith graduated from the training program in February and has worked at Tri-State Biodiesel since then. "Everything I learned in class about the environment, like the impact of air pollution and the need to cut down on carbon-dioxide emissions," she says, "I am applying here."

Drawbacks and Benefits

Real-time labor-market data may be a game-changer in the development of training programs, but the collection method does have its limitations. Not all job openings are listed online. Those that are sometimes provide incomplete information about the qualifications required. And when the software scrapes sites, it may pick up duplicate job ads. Such glitches can skew the employment picture.

That was of concern for a project led by the New Jersey Community College Consortium for Workforce and Economic Development. Using data from EmployOn, a subsidiary of Burning Glass, the consortium was designing customized training programs to prepare unemployed workers for new jobs, as bank tellers, for example, and electromechanical-engineering technicians.

As many as two-thirds of the job listings the consortium was relying on were duplicates, says Robert Rosa, its chief operating officer. Officials discovered the discrepancy through conversations with employers and have since stopped using the tool.

But the consortium is still committed to creating training programs in fields with real demand, says Jacob C. Farbman, director of communications for the New Jersey Council of County Colleges. Working directly with employers to figure out what positions they need to fill, he says, "has been even more effective than just relying on the data alone."

Other colleges, convinced that real-time information is useful, have deployed it in creative ways. At Harper, officials perused the data, then invited employers with job openings to a career fair this past spring. More than 90 employers attended, an increase of 26 percent over last year, according to the college.

Southern Maine Community College turned to real-time-data software when officials there decided to apply on behalf of its system for a federal grant. The grant, for more than $13-million, would be used to create and expand training programs in advanced manufacturing, information technology, and energy-efficient construction.

In its application, Southern Maine used labor-market data to bolster its report of job openings in the state: more than 1,000 in both information technology and advanced manufacturing, and nearly 400 in building technology. "It's so critical when you write these proposals that you show the need," says Diane M. Vickrey, the college's dean of students and planning.

The decision on the grant is pending, but Ms. Vickrey is hopeful. If awarded the money, she says, the college could develop more certificate and degree programs to prepare students for the state's burgeoning energy-efficient-construction industry—in part by using real-time labor-market data. In fact, Southern Maine has already used such data to design a new associate-degree program in computer science, which will begin this fall.

"We keep hearing over and over again that companies say, 'We can't fill jobs,'" says Ms. Vickrey. The college wants to get students ready, she says, "for the jobs that are out there."