New Directions for Higher Education: Q&A with Matthew Sigelman on Reading the Labor Market

In April 2013, NEJHE launched its New Directions for Higher Education series to examine emerging issues, trends and ideas that have an impact on higher education policies, programs and practices.
Past installments of the series featured Philip DiSalvio, dean of the College of Advancing & Professional Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston, interviewing: Carnegie Foundation President Anthony Bryk about the future of the credit hour; Fastweb.com and FinAid.org Publisher Mark Kantrowitz about student debt; Lumina Foundation President and CEO Jamie P. Merisotis about Lumina’s commitment to enrolling and graduating more students from college; American Council on Education (ACE) President Molly Corbett Broad about the efforts ACE is making to raise educational attainment in the U.S. and around the world; AAC&U President Carol Geary Schneider on liberal education; Richard Arum, co-author of Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses; and Richard Legon, president of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB), on the growing challenges facing higher education governance.

In this installment, DiSalvio interviews Matthew Sigelman, CEO of Burning Glass Technologies, a Boston-based labor market analytics firm.

The context

Although the U.S. economy is recovering from the recent recession, the job market remains weak. The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) suggests the U.S. economy is short nearly 9 million jobs.

The weak job market has been, and continues to be, very tough on young workers. The Economic Policy Institute reports that at 16%, the current unemployment rate of workers under age 25 was more than twice as high as the national average for all workers. While the labor market may be headed in the right direction, it is improving very slowly, and the prospects for young college graduates remain dim.

With the cost of higher education growing more rapidly than median family income, many students are left with little choice but to take out loans. Upon graduating into a labor market with limited job opportunities, they may not have the funds to repay these loans.

Increased calls for higher education’s engagement and responsibility in understanding market and workforce demand have led to the growing role for labor market analytics to inform the global conversation on education and the workforce by providing educators, policymakers, employers, workers and students with research, information and detailed awareness into skill gaps and labor market demand.

Sigelman adds a deep insight into the dialogue and the inextricable link between higher education and the economic well-being of New England. His firm, Burning Glass, provides detailed, real-time information about what’s happening in the labor market to educators, policymakers, students and job seekers. It generates this intelligence by collecting and “reading”—using sophisticated text-mining algorithms—tens of millions of online job postings. As a result, the firm’s data support the analysis of emerging skills and the changing job landscape.

The interview

DiSalvio: Despite the evidence that college graduates have better employment outcomes than those with less education, the value of college has been widely debated in recent years. The burden of paying for college has shifted to students and their families at a time when the job market remains anemic. What do you think are the job prospects in New England for recent college graduates?

Sigelman: Based on our analysis of the data, New England graduates clearly face a challenging market, but it is more challenging for some graduates than others. As is the case across the U.S., students who don’t develop specialized skill-sets are more likely to have difficulty when job hunting. Boston is the fifth largest metro by population in the U.S., but it ranks 14th in terms of the number of jobs open to recent non-technical graduates. On a per-capita basis, Boston ranks relatively low because, in addition to the scores of schools that call it home, the city is also a magnet for recent graduates nationwide. With so many recent graduates competing with one another for jobs, it can be a very challenging place to start out.

However, the outlook is more optimistic for graduates with some specialized expertise. About 73% of entry-level postings in Boston for graduates with a bachelor’s degree require specialized skills. Boston has higher-than-average concentrations of many scientific and technical jobs, such as software developers and medical researchers. Particularly when we look at emerging technical and scientific skills, Boston offers tremendous opportunity. For example, Boston has 10 times the concentration of bioinformatics jobs as the national average, and four times the concentration of big data jobs.

A more strategic kind of challenge confronting recent college graduates in New England is a mismatch in the market between supply and demand of recent graduates. Compared to the jobs available, we don’t have enough students graduating from STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs and too many graduating from certain fields such as design and human services.

However, a significant portion of what we’re seeing relates to an information vacuum that exists throughout the job market. This is a problem that affects students in virtually any program of study. If you talk to economists about the prerequisites for an efficient market, the one thing that always comes at the top of the list is perfect information. Both the demand side (employers) and the supply side (job seekers) must have full awareness of the market and, of course, intermediaries like higher education institutions play a critical role in this awareness.

In order to be “market makers,” higher education institutions must know where jobs are undersupplied and where they are oversupplied. And they need to understand that they play a key role—through program expansion and enrollment decisions—in enabling demand and supply to align. As a student, I need to know what kinds of jobs are out there, what’s in demand, and how to prepare for those jobs in very specific, very tangible ways.

We hear employers complaining all the time about their inability to find the talent that they need. Significantly for students, these mismatches between supply and demand exist and are very real and very changeable.

DiSalvio: Some observe that liberal arts majors are a dying breed. While liberal arts majors may feel they have it tough in today’s job market especially when compared with their science, tech, engineering and math peers, research by Burning Glass finds that students with liberal arts degrees can vastly increase their job prospects. What did the study reveal and how can it help guide liberal arts majors toward a career path?

Sigelman: We analyzed millions of entry-level job postings from the past 12 months (July 2012–June 2013) and our research showed that coupling technical skills with a liberal arts education can nearly double the jobs available to recent liberal arts graduates and offer an average salary premium of $6,000.

Despite the high unemployment rate for liberal arts graduates, we are seeing that the skills they possess are in demand when coupled with specific technical skills. We see that employers report a strong need for recent graduates who possess skills such as writing, adaptability and problem-solving. When combining these skills with workforce-specific competencies, a liberal arts education becomes highly valuable.

We identified eight technical skill sets—marketing, sales, business, social media, graphic design, data analysis, computer programming and IT networking—which can be acquired through additional coursework, minors or internships. By developing one or more of these technical skill-sets, liberal arts graduates can enhance their competitiveness for the 955,000 jobs they already qualify for and tap into an additional 862,000 jobs, almost doubling the number of jobs available to them.

But what employers predominantly ask for across all these entry levels are core foundational skills like research, writing, problem solving, communication, planning, and organizational skills. These are the kinds of skills that I would expect any liberal arts grad to have in abundance. They are, in fact, at the core of a strong liberal arts education.

In that sense, liberal arts students are well-positioned for the job market. The main barrier for liberal arts graduates is that employers, in many cases, express the need for graduates who also possess more specialized, workforce-ready skill-sets. The good news is that a lot of these skills are readily attainable, even within a liberal arts program of study.

Some students are told not to major in disciplines such as anthropology or classics because employers will not hire them. On the contrary, those majors provide students with many of the skills employers actually want. Students and universities should make sure that students have the opportunities to acquire the complementary skills that will make them competitive for a broader range of jobs.

One important trend we’re seeing in many bachelor’s-level jobs is that data and analytics skills are becoming a routine part of a diverse array of jobs. We see an increasing demand for positions with the word “analyst” embedded in the title—such as data mining analysts, business analysts, logistics analysts, market research analysts, etc. We’re also seeing large numbers of business and finance jobs asking for increasingly sophisticated math and data-analysis skills.

DiSalvio: How can higher education leaders take full advantage of labor market information to help improve the employment prospects of individuals and the economic prospects of the region?

Sigelman: Higher education institutions can use labor market information to gauge whether their educational offerings are aligned with the job market. Using this information can help them make sure their curriculum aligns with prospective employer needs. And with that, they can incorporate career planning throughout the student life cycle—from pre-enrollment though graduation.

It is critical that students have job opportunities available upon graduation and that they are well-prepared to capitalize on those opportunities. However, half of college graduates report that their schools failed to prepare them to look for a job, and fewer than one in 10 college students report talking with a career counselor before selecting a major. While much of the responsibility falls on students to plan proactively for their careers, there is a good deal of career counseling that higher education institutions could do to help prepare students for the post-graduation job market.

I also have concerns about academic programming in some higher education institutions. For example, programs in video game design have become increasingly popular. There are approximately 100 such programs in the country and that number appears to be growing rapidly. This is happening despite the fact that last year, there were just over 1,000 new video game design job openings nationwide and less than 10% were open to fresh graduates without prior experience.

If institutions are offering programs in areas that do not align with demand in the job market, graduates will have difficulty finding jobs. Conversely, there are ways to identify new job market opportunities and align programming with those opportunities.

We have been working with some institutions that have been successful in identifying emerging labor-market niches and designing programs to meet those needs. For example, one higher education research institution located in an area with a high concentration of biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies recently launched a program in regulatory affairs to address the strong demand for graduates of such programs.

We have worked with a number of community colleges that use real-time labor market data to find significant demand for jobs in the emerging hydro-fracking economy in oil-intensive regions of the country. In those areas of the market economy with high level of job demand, some institutions have launched programs to support growing sectors of the economy. Some institutions we work with also use job-posting data to justify closing programs that do not adequately prepare students for in-demand jobs.

Another way to use labor market information is in the career-planning process of the student life cycle. Some institutions have begun considering how to employ job-market literacy and career exploration tools into the pre-enrollment phase. This would help to ensure that students are making well-informed decisions about their choice of major. With that, institutions can equip their students with the tools to track changes in the job market throughout the course of their studies since much can change in a job market over four years.

DiSalvio: How do you think higher education is going to evolve and adapt to meet changing needs?

Sigelman: I think traditional higher education will continue to play a vital role in the higher education landscape although there will undoubtedly be some change. Some of this is already happening. As students (and their parents) become better-informed consumers and have the data available to them to make smarter choices about the kinds of investments to make in education, institutions will increasingly compete more aggressively on the strengths of their career services and how their graduates fare in the job market.

With more emphasis placed on career planning and career services, we will see a more robust conversation about the importance of internships and work experiences, both within school and on the peripheries of school. It is reported that one-third of college graduates wish they had done more internships. Institutions can help facilitate opportunities for future graduates to complete these internships. Much like the junior year abroad concept, one might imagine the emergence of a junior year at home or a junior semester in the workforce, whether it be apprenticeships, co-op education or internships.

One of the reasons I like the concept of a junior semester in the workforce is that it builds on a model of complementary education that is already very much accepted within higher education. Similarly we will see an increased emphasis on complementing the traditional academic program with work skills, whether within the formal academic program or through non-credit skill development boot camps, or through summer sessions.

We will also begin to see a significant role for modular and specialized kinds of education and training, tying into the broader movements around stackable credentials and MOOCS. We may see higher education becoming not only more specialized, especially on the graduate level, but more applied through a hybrid of university programs and workforce training.

We see that now with degrees in cybersecurity or in project management. In some ways, that may sound like on-the-job or employer training with a college credential.

We will start to see the evolution of mechanisms that gauge the skills employers require to help individuals identify and fill gaps relative to their competitive skills for various kinds of jobs. Institutions can then map those directly to the broad array of content available online. That will tie in powerfully as a great complement to the traditional academic program.

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