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January 20, 2011

Improving Decision Making through Integrating Education, Economic, and Workforce Development Data

A prosperous economy depends on a skilled and educated workforce that fulfills the needs of today's businesses and adapts to skill needs of the future. One significant challenge faced by Illinois and other states is the problem of "skill-mismatch," meaning that employers often demand skills that workers do not have. (Read more in an October 2009 report by the Skills2Compete-Illinois campaign.) This is most true for "middle-skill jobs" that require more than a high-school diploma but less than a four-year college degree. In 2007, 52 percent of jobs, but only 43 percent of Illinois workers, were considered middle-skill. As a result, jobs go unfilled, businesses productivity suffers, and people remain unemployed. The following chart, based on analysis from the 2009 report, shows the mismatch for each skill level.

Improved Decision Making and Targeted Investment

One of the first steps to correct this skill-mismatch and better prepare the workforce of northeastern Illinois is for policy makers and program administrators to improve decision making and to target investments in education and training programs that effectively transition workers from low-skill to middle-skill. Further, public investments should be targeted towards programs that provide training for the skills that are in-demand. Today, billions of federal, state, and local dollars are invested each year in Illinois in higher education and workforce development. According to a report by the Chicago Jobs Council (CJC), in 2006 more than $230 million was invested in workforce development programs in the City of Chicago alone. However, it is often difficult to measure the success of these programs due to insufficient data on the impacts and outcomes. Policy makers and program administrators need better information on what happens to program participants in terms of future employment status, wages, additional training, and career progress. Also, better data on the current supply and demand for skills is needed to help shape training curriculum.

Researchers and policy makers do have access to ample data on students' education performance. However, most people receive training and education through several systems, but data generated by separate systems are not connected. Because datasets are not linked, researchers and policy makers cannot answer complex questions on outcomes and program effectiveness. Similarly, wage and occupation data, while plentiful, resides in separate State data systems, leaving researchers unable to gauge what happens to people when they transition from an education or training program into the labor market. Overall, the result is a diminished ability to gauge the impact of training and education programs on students and workers as they transition throughout different levels of education, employment, and training throughout their career.

Progress Nationally and Locally

The good news is that recent federal and local initiatives have aimed to address these issues. At the federal level, several funding streams are dedicated to improving data systems so that more complex questions can be answered and policies and resources can be used more effectively. The Statewide Longitudinal Data Systems Grant Program (SLDS) provides states with funding to build data systems that link information on students' performance throughout their educational career and into the labor market to improve decision making around education and workforce development. In 2009, the Illinois Board of Higher Education received approximately $21 million dollars through the SLDS program to build a longitudinal data system. The system will link separate data-sets to help show the outcomes of students as they progress throughout the education system and into the workforce. Work began in early 2010, and the new system is expected to launch in late 2012 (to see the proposed organizational structure of the data system, click here). In 2010, the U.S. Department of Labor launched the Workforce Data Quality Initiative (WDQI), a smaller $12.2 million grant program to improve decision making by linking data systems. The Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (DCEO) applied for $1 million in funding from this program to make improvements that would leverage the longitudinal data system and link additional workforce and human services data. While the DCEO application was not selected, Illinois plans to apply again in the future.

The philanthropic sector has also emerged as an important leader in this effort. In 2006, the Joyce Foundation launched a multi-state initiative, Shifting Gears, to work with states to address the skills-mismatch challenge. Shifting Gears includes four core activities, one of which is using data to foster improvements in workforce development policy and practice. As explained in a recent report on their data initiative, it has become increasingly clear that aligning multiple data systems is necessary to analyze transitions and success. The Illinois Community College System (ICCS) has been an important partner in this initiative and will be launching a new ICCS Shifting Gears Transitions and Performance Portal, which will provide access to data on student transitions and performance.

The Chicago Workforce Investment Council (CWIC) is also leading an innovative initiative to improve data. CWIC partnered with Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago to launch the CWICstats Workforce Development Research and Data Initiative in 2009. CWICstats is developing a data system that will assess the performance of workforce programs in Chicago and show how training and education programs impact individuals in the labor market.

A New Kind of Data and Information Portal

A key recommendation in the workforce development report completed by the CJC for the GO TO 2040 plan was to create integrated, transparent information systems to improve decision making. This recommendation is included in GO TO 2040 and implementation is currently underway. CMAP is developing a new data portal as part of the MetroPulse website that will focus on integrating education, workforce development, and economic development data so that resources and strategies can be better targeted. The initiatives described above will greatly assist decision making, however there will continue to be a need to integrate data from different systems -- CMAP's new data portal will aim to fill this need. Additionally, it is critically important to improve access to data and communicate complex data so that it is actionable information. The primary goal of the new data portal is to integrate this data and make it easily accessible through visualization tools and with the ability to export tables. Because there is so much recent and emerging activity to improve data systems, it is important to build partnerships and ensure ongoing communication so redundancies are avoided and resources are leveraged. CMAP with CJC, Women Employed, and the PURE initiative at Northern Illinois University has established a Workforce Data Partners group to share expertise, coordinate efforts, and ensure smooth communication flow. This group is providing valuable guidance in the development of the new portal.