Labor Market Data for Education: A Primer

September 20, 2022 by Anne Peasley

The education providers that get ahead are the ones which are responsive to the outside world while remaining faithful to their mission. Doing this often means bringing (potentially) new sources of data to discussions. 

Gone are the days when “market research” meant simply looking at what similar colleges or universities are doing. Now, prospective students ask questions about job outlooks and upskilling. Policy makers are interested in how programs align with regional needs or in-demand jobs. And employers are struggling to find institutions they can trust to educate skilled workers who are both well-rounded and technically proficient.

To address these issues, educators must situate themselves within the economy — which includes discussions involving labor market data.

There’s no need to avoid these conversations because you’re not a trained economist. These are skills and knowledge that can be learned like any other. (Just ask any academic administrator who had to get a crash course in budgets!)

By the end of this article, you’ll know the basic types of labor market data and where to find them. The next time labor market data comes up in a discussion…you’ll be ready.

What is labor market data?

First, what do we mean by “labor market data”? Quite simply, it’s the data that is generated and gathered as people and employers go about their business. Employers report data to the government and create job postings. People create professional profiles (such as a resume, curriculum vitae, or online profile) and apply for those jobs. During all of these processes, data is generated.

When you think about it all at once, this is an incomprehensible amount of data. But when you start to break it apart, the individual components of “labor market data” start to make sense. Some are very precise, but change rapidly, such as skills data. Other types of data are reported quarterly, or even annually, so they don’t change as often, such as industry data.

You can think of this data as a pyramid, with the most broad, foundational data at the base and the most granular and precise at the top. By understanding the different layers and how they relate, you can see a more comprehensive picture of the labor market — and how it interacts with education.

Labor market data can be organized as a pyramid, from broad to specific.
Labor market data can be organized as a pyramid, from broad to specific.

Foundational data: traditional labor market data

Traditional labor market information doesn't change very often, so it provides a stable base from which to work. This data is great for understanding the structure of an economy and getting a full picture of the major trends in jobs and wages. However, because it’s so broad it often lacks detail.

Industry

The broadest level of analysis, industry data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) indicates what kind of business activity is thriving in your region. Each industry has a NAICS code based on the North American Industrial Classification System. Examples include Finance and Insurance (NAICS 52) and Manufacturing (NAICS 31-33). 

Use industry data to answer questions like: What types of employers will be hiring students upon graduation? What industries in my region have workers who may be looking to upskill or reskill? Does the proportion of internships available to students correspond with the industries in my region?

Occupation

The kinds of jobs performed within various industries. Occupation data from the BLS is useful for identifying growing, high-wage professions in your region. Each occupation has a SOC code according to the Standard Occupation Classification system. Examples include Accountants and Auditors (SOC 13-2011) and Engineers (SOC 17-2000).

Use occupation data to answer questions like: What types of jobs will be available to my graduates? What occupations are part of the industries in my region? What occupations are in-demand for prospective or current students? How do the salary expectations of common occupations stack up against my institution’s tuition and fees? 

Occupations can also be used to drill down into industry information. For example, the Finance and Insurance industry might employ both Accountants and Auditors and Lawyers. However, the Manufacturing industry will also employ Accountants and Auditors

If you’re looking at occupations and industries in your region and how those relate to your degree programs or majors, this may raise some questions. What different skills or experiences would prepare an Accounting major for the Finance and Insurance industry versus the Manufacturing industry? How do your programs prepare pre-law students for the various industries that hire lawyers? And where your programs do align with occupational growth, how can you share that information with prospective students?

Real-time labor market data

This data is collected from hundreds of millions of job postings created by employers and job seekers. It is more granular than traditional labor market data, providing details about the labor market and individual profiles that traditional labor labor market data simply can’t. Another of real-time data’s strengths is that it has virtually no time lag. However, because it’s dependent on the data that employers and individuals voluntarily post, outputs can fluctuate.  

Employers

The businesses, non-profits, and public sector organizations that exist (and are hiring!) in your region. Examples include IBM, Boeing, General Mills, etc.

Use employer data to answer questions like: Where can our graduates work? Who should we partner with for internship, co-op, or earn-and-learn programs? From which companies could we bring in leadership to speak to our students? How could we partner these employers to offer career services?

Job Titles

Compared to occupations, titles offer a more detailed picture of the unique roles that individual employers are hiring for. Job title analysis helps institutions identify emerging, hybrid roles to better inform program and course decisions. Unlike Occupations, job titles are not standardized. Examples include AWS Cloud Architect, Firmware Engineer, Sr. Tax Analyst.

Use job titles data to answer questions like: Do our programs include a concentration or course that covers skills for specific jobs? Are there skills that overlap between degree programs that have been traditionally offered separately, such as IT Analysts working in the Finance and Insurance industry? Are there popular jobs in my region that employ workers who may be looking to complete their degrees or learn new skills?

Profiles

Online profiles and resumes help you get a sense for the people already working in a region. This data includes public, self-reported information about individuals’ city/state/nation of residence, job history, education history, and skills.

Why it matters for education: What do my alumni do after graduation? What types of skills are my graduates listing in their profiles — and how does that compare to the skills we intend to teach? How could we forge stronger alumni connections among specific industries, occupations, or employers?

Skills

We define skills data as the specific abilities, expertise, and competencies that employers are seeking. This is the most precise, real-time level of labor market analysis. Examples include Python (Programming Language), Financial Analysis, Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR).

Use skills data to answer questions like: What types of strategic curriculum adjustments, microcredential development, and targeted reskilling/upskilling initiatives would make my programs more relevant to the regional labor market? What skills taught in our courses could I use to market specific programs to prospective students? How can my career services team teach students to list relevant skills on their resumes?

Also relevant, but not technically labor market data, include:

  • Completions and other data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), which give you an idea of how many new graduates are entering the workforce each year for a given region or area of study

  • Survey data (such as alumni surveys) from your institution, which can provide qualitative insights that big data sources cannot

Now that we know more about the different types of labor market data and how they fit into the education ecosystem, let’s talk about where to find these different data points.

Find the labor market data you need

We exist in a data-rich environment — the trick is capturing that data in an easy-to-use format. There are many options for accessing labor market data. These options involve tradeoffs between cost, ease of use, share-ability, and other factors. There is no one "right" answer for which source is best. It's a question of priorities.

  • Open access 

Many sources of labor market data, especially those collected by state and federal government agencies, are available for free online. It may take some time to get used to their user interface or filtering, but the data is there for the taking. Sources of real-time data are often job boards or online professional networking sites. (Links to some specific sources are provided above, or see the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ complete list of databases.)

  • API

With an API (Application Programming Interface), you can pipe data directly into your own software or web application. This takes more work to set up on the back end, but allows you more freedom to select just the right data on the front end. Free examples include the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Free API and the Open Skills API. If you’re willing to pay, there are also proprietary APIs that offer additional capabilities, flexibility, data points, and customer support compared to free alternatives.

  • Software

If you’d rather not set up your own API, there are software platforms that aggregate and clean the data, and present it in software such as a research portal. Some platforms will include value-added services such as data enrichment or unsuppression, synthesis of multiple sources of data, or user-friendly taxonomies that make it easier for you to organize and work with the data.

  • Display Tools & Widgets

At an even more granular level, some software tools package labor market data in a format that you can embed into your web pages — specifically tailored for an external audience. These options are great for when you’re not necessarily conducting research with the data, but instead want to show results, such as occupation outlooks or estimated career earnings.

  • Consulting Services

If you don’t have time or bandwidth to dive into this data yourself, there are plenty of consulting services to do the work for you. These services can cover a huge range of research questions from market research, to economic impact studies, or analyses of specific programs.

Put the data to use

Labor market data is an essential part of strategic conversations in today’s education environment. It can be used to answer many questions that educators, boards, and cabinets will be discussing (not to mention prospective students and their parents).

With this data, you have the ability to situate education within the economy. By connecting education and work, you have the tools to craft a bright future for your institution and your students.

There’s a lot of work to be done. Let’s get started.


This article is part of our Market Programs and Drive Enrollment series. To get started deploying labor market data within the jobs you need to do, read the next article.