Emma Rindlisbacher at Work Shift: “…Measuring which fields are in demand is harder than it sounds. Many of the available data sources, experts say, have significant flaws. And that causes problems for education providers who are trying to understand market demand and map their programs to it.
“If you are in higher education and trying to understand where the labor market is going, use BLS data as a general guide but do not rely too heavily on it when it comes to building programs and making investments,” said Jason Tyszko, the Vice President of the Center for Education and Workforce at the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation.
Why it matters: Colleges are turning to labor market data as they face increasing pressure from lawmakers and the public to demonstrate value and financial ROI. A number of states also have launched specialized grant and “free college” programs for residents pursuing education in high-demand fields. And many require state agencies to determine which fields are in high demand as part of workforce planning processes.
Virginia is one of those states. To comply with state law, the Board of Workforce Development has to regularly update a list of high demand occupations. Deciding how to do so can be challenging.
According to a presentation given at a September 2021 meeting, the board chose to determine which occupations are in high demand by using BLS data. The reason: the BLS data is publicly available.
“Although in some instances, proprietary data sources have different or additional nuances, in service of guiding principle #1 (transparency, replicability), our team has relied exclusively on publicly available data for this exercise,” the presentation said. (A representative from the board declined to comment, citing the still ongoing nature of constructing the high demand occupations list.)
The limits of the gold standard
For institutions looking to study job market trends, there are typically two main data sources available. The first, from BLS, are official government statistics primarily designed to track economic indicators such as the unemployment rate. The second, from proprietary companies such as Emsi Burning Glass, typically relies on postings to job board websites like LinkedIn.
The details: The two sources have different strengths and weaknesses. The Emsi Burning Glass data can be considered “real time” data, because it identifies new job postings as they are released online. The BLS data, on the other hand, is updated less frequently but is comprehensive.
The BLS data is designed to compare economic trends across decades, and to map to state systems so that statistics like unemployment rates can be compared across states. For those reasons, the agency is reluctant to change the definitions underlying the data. That consistency, however, can make it difficult for education providers to use the data to determine which fields are in high demand.
BLS data is broken down according to the Standard Occupation Classification system, or SOC, a taxonomy used to classify different occupations. That taxonomy is designed to be public facing—the BLS website, for example, features a guide for job seekers that purports to tell them which occupation codes have the highest wages or the greatest potential for growth.
But the taxonomy was last updated in 2010, according to a BLS spokesperson…(More)”.