Colby Spencer-Cesaro, research director at Workforce Intelligence Network for Southeast Michigan, is a speaker at the fifth annual National EMSI Conference in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, September 21-23. Below is an interview we conducted with Colby on her work, her inspiration, and her talk at the upcoming conference. Register for the conference here (closes September 16).
1. Describe WIN’s mission for us. How do you collaborate with community colleges, WIBs, and economic development organizations?
The Workforce Intelligence Network (WIN) is a Southeast Michigan collaborative effort between nine community colleges, seven workforce boards, and numerous economic development partners. Our mission is to create a comprehensive and cohesive workforce development system in Southeast Michigan that provides employers with the talent they need for success.
Data is a pillar in our work. We consider our organization to be a “think and do tank” where we not only produce innovative research but also assist with data-informed solutions. (I don’t like “data-driven.” Data should be taken in context so I prefer to say “data-informed.”)
“I don’t like ‘data-driven.’ Data should be taken in context so I prefer to say ‘data-informed.’ “
As for how we collaborate—community colleges and WIBs make up our board while economic development organizations participate in many of our activities. WIN convenes several employer groups to talk through talent issues and devise creative solutions; brings together workers from WIBs, community colleges, and economic development organizations for professional development and collaboration; and works closely with regional K-12 partners through the talent life cycle to better engage employers and policymakers in talent pipeline development.
2. What sort of role does labor market data play in this regional collaboration?
Labor market information is everything to us! Both traditional and “cutting edge” (real-time postings) LMI are at the center of our work. When WIN was first launched in the fall of 2011, two primary goals were 1) to get better LMI into the hands of the talent system and 2) to aid them in utilizing this LMI to make more informed programming decisions.
3. Your recent project with the Detroit Regional Chamber (analyzing the state of the Detroit economy) illustrated the value in combining workforce and economic development efforts to look at industry and workforce components at the same time. How often would you say workforce and economic development should work together? How should one inform the other?
Workforce and economic development go hand-in-hand and should be in constant collaboration. Without labor, businesses cannot produce and the economy doesn’t grow. Without companies, people don’t have work and the economy doesn’t grow. You need both and each is integral to the other.
“Workforce and economic development go hand-in-hand and should be in constant collaboration.”
That is why WIN works so closely with economic development organizations. By aiding them with data and research needs for site selection activities and company attraction, we are helping the regional workforce with new opportunities for employment and in turn growing the economy.
4. As the research director for an organization that does an impressive amount of data research, what are some pitfalls that you find people run into when using economic and labor market data? And how important is it to understand the audience that is absorbing the data and analysis?
This is a good question! Our organization is small but mighty. We do a lot of data and research work for a variety of organizations, not just our board. We also have many consulting contracts for data work.
Common pitfalls I often see include:
- Cramming too much information on a single page/infographic without the text to explain it. Most users really need an explanation of what they are looking at and it needs to be clean and simple.
- Not doing a reality check before announcing something to be complete. I often see analyses that are way off the mark and it is simply because a person didn’t think twice about the numbers. If it looks and sounds too good to be true or if it seems way off the mark, it probably is. A reality check is necessary.
A common pitfall: “Focusing too much on what the data says and not taking it into context.”
- Focusing too much on what the data says and not taking it into context. We at WIN often take data to employer groups in order to gain more information and clarity. A perfect example of potentially confusing data are the current low job postings for engineering technicians and the high numbers of postings for four-year-degree engineers. Why one versus the other? We asked companies why they wanted engineers and not techs; is a four-year degree really that special? No, it is not. Our employer partners informed us that they wanted engineers with a calculus-based program and, as it turns out, usually only four-degree programs offer that. So it isn’t that they don’t want the two-year-degree worker, it’s that they want workers with calculus. Judging by the data alone, we would have assumed that people should avoid a two-year engineering tech degree when actually community colleges simply need to revamp their curricula a bit. (This is good example of being data-informed, not data-driven!)
5. Can you give a sneak peek at what you’ll be talking about at the EMSI Conference?
I just gave you a sneak peak with my third pitfall! I will walk through more examples using our past project with community colleges, WIBs, economic developers, and private company. I’ll also discuss workforce problems faced by various partners and how we worked with them using data & research as a guide. I’ll also be talking at length about our work with the new federal National Network of Manufacturing Institutes.
Some of the common themes in my presentation will be “data-informed, not data-driven,” “looking at multiple sources of data for better results,” and “how to take what is interesting to a researcher and make it applicable in practice.”
6. What are you passionate about outside your work? Any side ventures or hobbies?
Outside of work I am always on the go with a million projects in the hopper at once. I can’t sit still! My Yorkie, Brady, goes with me everywhere and I spend a lot of time cooking. I am almost ready to launch my food (and other household projects) blog. I’m also big into fitness (running!) and I’m super proud of the University of Michigan “M” that I just planted in yellow flowers in my lawn.