Just In Time Talent Requires Real Time Data

As the regional economy slowly emerges from a devastating recession, educators and trainers are creating new relationships with employers to better understand the fluctuating need for new skills and develop talent more expediently.
The Workforce Intelligence Network (WIN), established in 2011 through an initial grant from the New Economy Initiative to link regional education, workforce, and business interest to strengthen economic performance. WIN recently published its first report, Working Smarter: Understanding Jobs and Talent in Southeast Michigan, built on the premise that real time data, mined from online job postings and other traditional sources, gives educators and trainers a clearer picture of changing demand for worker skills. 
Unlike most jobs analysis that look at industry trends, WIN looks at occupations like information technicians, nurses, and skilled trades, and identifies key growth sectors -- health care, the largest employer; information technology, the fasted growing occupation;  and advanced manufacturing, which is the largest revenue producer; with information technology being a common occupation crossing all sectors.
"If there is such a skills gap why aren't (wages) going up?"
Michigan's economy is growing faster than many states, yet employment is lagging, primarily as a result of the "skills gap" among available workers -- a controversial assessment that has been challenged by some. In a presentation before the Michigan Community College Board March 15, Lisa Katz, WIN Executive Director, outlined some of the factors that contribute to the skills gap:
  • 71 percent of human resource professionals in the recession realized that losing older skilled workers (by layoff or early retirement) would pose a problem for their companies but did nothing to prepare for it.
  • Major manufacturers estimate that it will cost up to $100 million to compensate for retired skilled workers, according to a 2011 Nielson survey of top manufacturing executives.
  • Only one in 10 organizations believes it has sufficient technology capability.
  • Over 80 percent of educators believe they have a moderate to major gap in the ability to meet skills needed for mobile computing, business analytics, cloud computing, and social business.
  • Employers have trouble articulating their skills needs.
  • Only 50 percent of job postings identify educational attainment requirements
Depressed wage levels compound the problem, she says. "If there is such a skills gap why aren't (wages) going up? There are a lot of pressures besides gaps in the talent pool that are putting downward pressure on wages. There's a lot of global competition even against our own local talent that's keeping wage pressure down. We still have nervous employers who aren't ready to commit at higher levels. They are still very lean. Companies that made it during the recession had to be lean. Now, suddenly, they're faced with trying to compete for workers at a higher wage level and having to train them -- that's a double-whammy to their bottom line."
In an era of dynamic change, the region needs an exchange where representatives of the growth sectors, educators, and trainers can identify changing needs as they occur. WIN pursues this tactically by working with groups such as the "IT in the D" collaborative; a pilot training program developed by five information technology firms in Detroit. They have also coordinated representatives from 75 manufacturing companies to work with colleges and training programs to develop internships, apprenticeships, and youth workshops, including development of a new training institute focused on the emerging skilled trades.
"With the recession, there was so much downward pressure on trying to cut costs and uncertainty in the job market," says Rebecca Cohen, director of Research and Policy for WIN. It's not a "panic mode," she says, but it's certainly a scramble to retool, and in some cases create elements of a career pipeline that is consistent with current needs.
Businesses, having drastically cut their workforce, now are now realizing the talent void and are scrambling to retool their human resource capabilities. WIN is infusing the skills development dialogue with real time data using analytics created by Burning Glass to aggregate and categorize job postings, skills employers are looking for, the type of jobs in demand, the experience required, and educational degrees needed. 
In the past, educators and trainers have relied on data as much as two years old. In a recessionary period, that can be very misleading, notes Jim Sawyer, Macomb Community College (MCC) Provost and Vice President of the Learning Unit. 
"Historically one of the dilemmas that educators have is that the data is very old," says Sawyer. "We're looking at data which are 10-year forecasts that are two years old when they come out. The fact that we can get a handle on real employment, real job opportunities is very important."
WIN's ability to convene representatives of growth sector employers and identify skills needed more expediently certainly helps, he says. "If you go back two or three years ago, there was a real slow down in the hiring of nurses. ... We were contemplating at one time reducing the number of people in that program. We came to the conclusion that we were hopeful it would pick up in the relatively near future. If we had seen a continued decline in nursing, we would have cut the number of students. Data tools such as this help drive those decisions for us."
Trainers, using state and federal data, often had a yearlong lag time in adjusting its service offerings to what was happening in the economy, says Cohen. "During the recession, it was particularly hard because things were changing so fast."
WIN has developed "Credentials That Work," a program that integrates real time data and skills needs into the academic realm on a much more consistent and systematic way, allowing coursework to be developed quicker. MCC encourages business engagement through an advisory forum that meets twice during the year. 
"We use that forum to help shape our existing curriculum," Sawyer says. In addition, the college's workforce training staff informs curriculum development through their interaction with business clients.
While real time data provides a current look on what's going on in the economy, analysts still need to supplement it with state and federal information, Cohen says. Also, it's critical to validate job posting data with employers themselves. Not all employers post jobs on line, and one job posting may represent several positions needed. 

WIN's Working Smarter report makes numerous recommendations. Among the more notable suggestions are that employers develop apprenticeships and other pathways for entry-level talent while exploring the recruitment of global talent from universities. For government they recommend greater integration of real time data acquisition in economic development and the reauthorization of the Workforce Investment Act. And for educational institutions they encourage the promotion of career awareness among students and greater engagement with business advisors.
In its short tenure, WIN has established its role as convener in the collaboration between educational and training providers and business, says Sawyer. "From our perspective the most important thing is for our students to be successful. Part of  helping our students be successful is not only giving them the education they want to get but helping get them launched along whatever career path or further education goals they may have."

Dennis Archambault lives in Detroit and writes for Metromode, Concentrate and Model D.

All Photography by David Lewinski Photography
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