Quick Environmental Scanning for Workforce Education Needs

The University of Detroit Mercy recently partnered with Ford Motor Co. to develop a graduate-level curriculum for retraining traditional engineers to work on a new generation of electric and hybrid-electric cars and trucks. With so many displaced workers and unemployed adults, more colleges and universities are working to identify specific workforce needs in their area and launch new workforce education programs in response.

While many program directors don't have the time or resources to conduct a traditional environmental scan, there are some fast steps you can take to identify local needs and measure the demand for workforce education programs in your area. We asked for first steps from Rick Voorhees, Principal of Voorhees Group LLC and past president of the Association for Institutional Research (AIR); Patricia Malone, director of corporate education and training at the Center for Emerging Technologies at Stony Brook University; and Victoria Matthew, director of program development, continuing and professional education at UMASS Amherst.

Where to Find Information -- and Partners

"There's no such thing as perfect data. Find the pattern, but if you wait until you have perfect data to start a program, you've lost an opportunity."
Rick Voorhees, Principal, Voorhees Group LLC

Much of the official government data on the workforce is pretty dated by the time it's available. Voorhees suggests that program directors focus on participation in local industry meetings to get first-hand information on workforce needs, network with possible partners, and establish a visible presence for the university.

Seek out:

  • The local workforce investment board
  • Trade meetings and industry association meetings
  • Chamber of Commerce meetings
  • The council of regional governments

Often, Voorhees notes, the county leaders have focused research into economic development and are thrilled at the possibility of a partnership with an academic institution. Patricia Malone adds that it is key to identify the major sectors in your region (whether manufacturing, biotech, electronics and software, etc.) and talk to the industry leaders to learn what new skills are needed and what difficulties employers are having in recruiting new workers. Victoria Matthew suggests also looking at the job listings in your area. This can give you a very fast read on what employers are hiring for, and what skills and education are needed for those positions.

"Find your local workforce investment board. Go and introduce yourself, make an appointment with a staff member -- whether for a broad discussion about what job seekers are looking for, or to vet an idea for a specific program. This also informs them about what you're considering, so that they can send contacts your way."
Victoria Matthew, UMASS Amherst

Questions to Ask

Malone recommends taking a 360 assessment approach. Labor market data by itself will not be enough to tell you whether there is actually a volume of either incumbent or transitional workers in need of a certain program, or whether there will be a market for them upon graduation or certification. You will need to ask targeted questions of the local workforce investment board and industry leaders in order to get a more complete picture of the needs in your region.

When speaking with the local board, Malone asks:

  • What type of certifications or credentials are employers seeking in new employees or looking to develop in existing employees?
  • Are employers able to recruit and hire to suit their needs from their region? If not, what are the roadblocks to obtaining people with the skills/knowledge they need?
  • What are their estimates on upcoming retirements? Do they have a seriously aging workforce? Is there more need to retain and retrain older workers? Is there a new investment in succession planning, requiring training and skill development?
  • Are there emerging skills or technologies that mean new training needs?

In meeting with the industry associations, Malone looks to their up-to-date statistics on job placement, and she asks:

  • What people are actually obtaining jobs in a given industry? What are their skill sets and credentials?
  • What enhancement of skill sets is needed?

Find Out Where You Already Have Partners

Finally, Malone suggests, do an assessment of your internal resources and opportunities.

Whether your institution is a community college or a large research institution, you likely have professors in various departments who are already undertaking shared projects with industry partners. Their interest may be research and they may never have asked their partners about training needs. "It isn't on their radar," Malone notes. "But those contacts are there. Whether in nursing, engineering and manufacturing, or pharmaceutical, look at what you already have." By building on your existing resources and contacts, you can make smarter investments in new programming.

"Take a look at your current programs that are successful. Where does your institution already have strong relationships? It may be in the healthcare industry. Go to that sector first. Find out what training needs that industry has in addition to what you are already providing. You might find out that though you have a strong nursing program, there's a huge need for laboratory assistance and aid, and no one's providing it. And no one thought to call you because the industry leaders don't think of you yet as a resource."
Patricia Malone, Stony Brook University