Identifying Local Skills Gaps

New report from Emsi explains how regions can use data to identify skills gaps, which vary wildly across cities and even within industries, and what that means for higher ed.

February 28, 2020
 
Getty Images/Thomas Barwick

Cities in California and Minnesota both have growing medical technology manufacturing industries, but job seekers in those states need different skills to be competitive in the industry.

In California, the jobs focus more on programming and life science skills, while the jobs in Minnesota focus more on product development and industrial engineering.

Emsi, a labor market analytics firm, uses data tools to identify these nuances. It also determines the skills gap between what employers need and what prospective hires have, so policy makers and institutions of higher education can address those challenges.

The firm used data from postings for job openings and profiles uploaded by job seekers to identify key skills industries want. Emsi hopes to provide a tool to improve regional economies by using better information to align training programs and language to address skills that are needed.

In a new report that analyzes the landscape in Minnesota, for example, Emsi found large gaps between supply and demand for discrete skills in med-tech manufacturing, including lean manufacturing, Six Sigma methodology and statistical process controls.

"We’re picking up the keywords that employers are saying they’re struggling to find," said Rob Sentz, chief innovation officer at the firm. While some professions -- nursing, for example -- might not require detailed postings because most people know what the job consists of, other industries that are changing quickly are asking for very specific skills that might not be traditionally implied with the job, he said.

This may be the furthest a firm has gotten in accurately assessing the gap between supply and demand for jobs and skills, according to Jim Fong, lead consultant at the University Professional and Continuing Education Association.

“Their ability to link labor … and education data, apply their forecasts, and link the external databases is impressive, and the job analytics they are producing are very good,” Fong said. “They’ve taken these external databases and organized them in a way that allows them to cross-reference so much data, including skills asked of employers for specific jobs, by occupation, industry and various levels of geography.”

Continuing education programs could use these data to find areas to explore further, he said. For instance, Fong said he would want to convene area businesses to discuss the demand for certain skills, which would differ based on whether he was in Minnesota or in California.

For postsecondary education, the data can be used to shape curricula, Sentz said.

Western Governors University uses Emsi data as a baseline to do its skills mapping, said Marni Baker Stein, the university's provost and chief academic officer. While many of the skills employers look for are enduring -- like critical thinking and communication -- sometimes technical skills have a shorter lifespan, she said.

With Emsi and the university's other tools, WGU can keep abreast of what's needed and update its master curriculum appropriately.

"We are, relatively speaking, fairly agile in our ability to adapt programs to industry needs," Baker Stein said.

in the future, WGU hopes to use the additional geographic data to tell students about real-time, local demand for the skills they're learning. It would also like to provide information about the demand of programs in different geographic areas before students choose what to pursue.

Finding skills gaps isn’t anything new for community colleges, said David Baime, senior vice president of government relations and policy analysis at the American Association of Community Colleges. Two-year institutions have tended to be heavily focused on the immediate and upcoming needs of regional businesses, he said.

Now, the data they can use are just more sophisticated.

“The report is just one very good example of the type of analytical work that colleges are undertaking across the country,” Baime said.

But what about traditional four-year colleges?

"They’re all very interested in ensuring their curriculum is relevant and valuable," Sentz said. Several four-year institutions already work with Emsi, including Boise State University and California State University, Dominguez Hills.

One of the first steps, he said, is aligning the language of the curriculum with the skills employers say they need. If a college is teaching a skill but describes it differently in the curriculum, or doesn't call it out at all, then employers won't know the skill is being taught and students may not know how to express that skill on a résumé.

"I think the beauty of skills-based education is you can tag the attainment of skills to any achievement," Baker Stein said. This approach doesn't need to be a big shift even for a small liberal arts college, she said -- the institution should just learn how to signal to employers what skills students are learning in a way they'll understand.

A second, larger step is filling in the gaps between what employers need and what students are being taught.

Whole programs don't need to change to close the gap, Sentz said. Rather, colleges can use this information to better ensure what they offer is up-to-date with labor market needs.

Boise State uses Emsi to explore the feasibility of new programs, to see what skills employers are looking for and to understand employment trends, according to Carl Melle, new program planning manager at the college's eCampus Center.

By using Emsi, the college gets ready-made reports on job markets, which cuts down the time it takes to determine feasibility for programs, Melle said. But the college relies on faculty members to interpret the data they receive and determine areas to explore.

Emsi doesn't want to be breaking apart liberal arts programs, Sentz said, especially since some research has shown that students who study in a broader field rather than a narrowly focused one do better in the long term.

"But we do know that the tension that so many schools feel today is the criticism that the market has toward liberal arts programs, in that they don’t apply to the market well," he said.

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