Four Big Questions in Career Success and Where to Find Answers with Data

March 7, 2017

Bill DeBaun, Director of Data and Evaluation

As members have heard by now, NCAN is engaged in a year-long project to assist members with incorporating career success into their college access and success programming. This endeavor, generously made possible by Strada Education Network (formerly USA Funds), explores how programs can advise students about the variety of career pathways available to them. In encouraging students to enroll in and complete at a postsecondary institution, programs should also connect students with tools that build their professional skills and knowledge and help them move purposefully toward completion and a career.

In recent years, many NCAN members have turned an eye toward using research, data, and evaluation to guide their programmatic activities. The effective use of data and research can help programs to improve the services they provide to students and increase the number of students they are serving. This applies to advising students in the areas of college and career success as well.

In the past, while helping members understand how to make their data work for them, NCAN has stressed the importance of asking the right questions of their data at the outset. Too often members embark on data collection procedures without a clear sense of the direction they’re headed or what they would like the end result to be. A more prudent course of action is to work backward from the outcomes members would like to achieve and see which data and processes can get them there.

With that in mind, what are some of the key questions our field might have with regard to the intersection of career success advising and data? Here are some that come to mind:

  • Which careers are likely to be high-demand in the short-, medium- and long-term, both nationally and in a given area?
  • Which careers are likely to be “good paying” and able to support a professional and, potentially, his or her family?
  • Which postsecondary institutions and programs most often lead to positive educational and career outcomes for students?
  • What kinds of training, skills, and education are required for various occupations?

Fortunately, there are many publicly available resources that programs can access to answer these questions. Let’s take each question in turn, with the caveat that many of these resources overlap multiple questions.

Which careers are likely to be high-demand in the short-, medium- and long-term, both nationally and in a given area?

The phrase with which members want to better acquaint themselves here is “workforce projections.” Labor-focused government entities, researchers, and organizations at the national, regional, and state levels offer projections of the number and types of positions that will need to be filled in various occupational categories in a given period. Note that these are estimates, but they can be useful in helping students understand which occupations and sectors may consistently reward them with available positions in the future, given the appropriate training and credentials.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) maintains national employment projections with various tables that include employment by major occupational group projected through 2024, the fastest growing occupations between 2014 and 2024, and occupations with the most job growth during the same period.

BLS’ Occupational Outlook Handbook is also useful in this area. It allows users to research occupations by pay, required education and/or on-the-job training, projected number of new jobs, and growth rate.

Several states also provide state-level workforce projections. What is included in these labor websites varies from state to state, but readers whose states are included on NCAN’s continuously updated list should explore to see what is available.

College Measures, an initiative associated with the American Institutes of Research, “operates under the belief that data is underexposed and underused by students, parents, policymakers, and even by institutions themselves.” Its Launch My Career program includes a series of state-specific websites that provide information for students that can help them find degree programs and occupations that will help them to succeed academically and professionally. Currently there are Launch My Career websites for ColoradoTennessee, and Texas. They are very useful for programs that serve students in these states, as these websites answer many of the guiding questions outlined above.

Which careers are likely to be “good paying” and able to support a professional and, potentially, his or her family?

The definition of a good-paying career will vary widely across states, programs, communities, and contexts. Without providing a universally agreed upon definition of “good-paying career,” there are several resources available to look up salaries for given positions.

At the national level, the most prominent resource is, again, BLS’ Occupational Outlook Handbook. Sorting by median pay, users can find positions that meet their salary demands. Keep in mind, however, that these data are national, and salaries for specific regions and communities can vary widely.

SalaryExpert, from the Economic Research Institute, offers a similar function, with the addition of being searchable by city and state.

State-level websites also often include some information about careers that are “hot,” i.e., in demand and/or good paying. Consult NCAN’s list for more. The Launch My Career websites mentioned above are also very useful for this purpose but are, again, limited to three states for now.

Which postsecondary institutions and programs most often lead to positive educational and labor outcomes for students?

Data in this area are admittedly not as robust as we would like to see. For example, the dearth of data nationally on the outcomes of Pell Grant recipients makes it difficult for NCAN members to see which institutions are best serving low-income students.

With that said, there are a few national sources that help to address this question.

First, the U.S. Department of Education's College Scorecard includes information on the “median earnings of former students who received federal financial aid, ten years after entering the school.” This is a blunt instrument, and program-level data would sharpen it. Different colleges and universities offer a number of academic programs, and the relative strength and weakness of these programs can vary considerably, as can the outcomes of students who complete them. Looking at outcomes for an institution overall masks the outcome variation between the different academic programs it offers. However, this is what members currently have to work with.

For members with students enrolled in (or interesting in enrolling in) vocational programs, the department recently released new data related to “gainful employment” regulations intended to hold programs accountable for ensuring that graduates complete the programs they start and aren’t overburdened with debt. The dataset is a rich source of information that NCAN members can use to help make clearer to students what they can expect to earn after obtaining various types of degrees or credentials from public, private non-profit, and private for-profit colleges across the country. The dataset includes programs that had at least 10 students matched to Social Security Administration earnings data in calendar year 2014. On the NCAN website, members can find an Excel file with city and state information linked to the data, as well as a pivot table that allows for filtering on state, institution name and type, credential level, and academic program name.

Another Education Department dataset related to the gainful employment regulations examines 8,637 programs from more than 2,000 higher education institutions, the majority of which are private, for-profit. These data can help students determine if a program meets either annual earnings or discretionary income levels (which were set through the federal regulatory process), which indicate that students were well-served by their postsecondary investment. Members can use the dataset as an advising tool for students, who should be wary of institutions that are “in the zone” or failing either metric. For an excellent visualization of this data, members should visit this blog post from New America.

What kind of training, skills, and education are required by various occupations?

The BLS’ Occupational Outlook Handbook makes another appearance here because it is such a versatile resource. Members and their students can take deep dives into individual careers. Each career’s profile includes key statistics like median pay, education requirements, and job outlook, but also expands on topics like “what does this profession actually do?” and “what is the work environment like?”, as well as how to become an employee in the profession, similar occupations, and even state and area data like employment and wage estimates.

Students who are unsure which career might be a good fit for them should consider taking a career inventory, which is a diagnostic that assesses their skills and interests and suggests potential occupational matches. NCAN’s blog has more on career inventories.

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These four questions are certainly not the be-all, end-all of successfully incorporating career success into a college access and success program. However, they do represent key questions a program, student, or family might consider exploring. By thinking at the beginning about what the desired outcome is, NCAN members can help to focus both their programming and an individual student’s career success.

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