- Southwest Wisconsin Technical College (SWTC) uses Emsi data in a rigorous review process that evaluates each program every year.
- The review process takes place in two stages: 1) internal review, analyzing the relationship between the program and regional economic/workforce needs; 2) external review involving regional employers to validate the results.
- The annual review has helped SWTC anticipate looming skills gaps, tweak existing programs to meet seasonal demand, build a new laboratory science technician program, and more.
Why An Annual Review?
When relevancy is the name of the game, it pays to keep a finger on the pulse of your programs. That’s exactly why Southwest Wisconsin Technical College (SWTC) has developed a rigorous, data-informed review process that incorporates labor market research from Emsi to measure each program’s economic and workforce vitality—not every three years or so, but every single year.
SWTC, located in rural Fennimore in the very southwestern-most corner of Wisconsin, serves about 1,200 credit students and 13,000 noncredit students. It was recently ranked third in the nation (according to WalletHub’s analysis) for community colleges based on cost, education outcomes (including retention rate and graduation rate), and career outcomes (including return on investment and student loan default rate).
The small, two-year technical college knows it is imperative that its programs provide solid, up-to-date value to students, employers, and the region. To do this, SWTC must stay on top of the needs of local industries and employers.
“We can be more responsive to the needs of our district and students by evaluating our programs more frequently,” said Barb Tucker, director of college effectiveness at SWTC. “That’s a top issue for colleges. Things can go south pretty fast if you don’t constantly make sure your programs provide value.”
How They Do It: Internal and External Review
Tucker’s team reviews the college’s programs in two key stages:
- First, the team produces an annual internal review. They use labor market analysis from Emsi to write program reports detailing the relationship between the program and the regional economic and workforce needs.
- Second, they conduct a biannual external review involving regional employers to validate the results.
On “review day,” the team starts by determining which occupations still pertain to the program in question. They measure job growth, check the volume and timing of job postings (comparing these with hires), and constantly run CIP-to-SOC crosswalks with colleges across the state. (NOTE: Emsi is working on improving this crosswalk process via our new program outcomes reports.)
Tucker’s team also considers graduation numbers for occupations to determine which graduates hail from SWTC and which graduated elsewhere—so that if there’s any competition with nearby colleges, they can respond accordingly.
For each program, an advisory committee composed of employers from the field meet twice a year to review the curriculum. This outside perspective, combined with the rich, comprehensive labor market analysis, has been invaluable. “This bi-annual review is a fantastic way to verify the data with live information from the ground,” Tucker said. “It adds a layer to the conversation.”
She clarified the importance of this data-employer connection based on a couple of common scenarios.
- Employers might talk about the demand for specific skills that just aren’t showing up in the postings yet, in which case SWTC can explore the need for a new program. They can then analyze postings over time to see if the postings reflect what employers are saying.
- The college might assume that students are leaving a particular program because they “job out,” but businesses know that, in fact, the need for those jobs has decreased, indicating the program might actually need to shrink.
Demographic Data Helps Sense Skills Gap
Demographic data in particular plays a key role when the team checks for looming skills gaps as the workforce ages. “We keep a watchful eye out for larger openings,” said Amy Loy, evaluation coordinator. “With only a small student population, we have to be on our game if we want to address skills gaps due to retirement and other issues.”
For instance, the team used demographic data (along with the other metrics) to validate SWTC’s electric power distribution program. Feedback from local employers indicated an aging workforce in the field, and this was quickly corroborated by Emsi’s demographic data.
The fact that the team could determine how many workers were likely to retire, and how soon, spurred the program approval process, because “while some of our program completers may not be able to find a job immediately after they graduate, they certainly will once the next wave of retirement hits,” said Tucker.
Job Postings Determine Need for Welders
For SWTC’s new welding class, it was job postings that clinched the deal. The team discovered an uptick in job postings for welding jobs during January and February, but the school’s welding program kicked off in August with graduation not occurring till May. Their solution was to create an evening program that began in January.
Digging deep into the data gives the team an excellent connection with all corners of school—a connection bolstered when they share the program reports with faculty. “We aren’t in a silo,” said Tucker. “The faculty are eager to see what we have, and it’s rewarding for everyone to see them understand the data, to see how we use information to improve their program.”
Industry & Occupation Analysis Validate a New Food Science Tech Program
Perhaps the team’s best success yet came two years ago when SWTC began a laboratory science technician program in response to the growth in the food manufacturing industry. With a concentration of both large and small food production companies in the area, the call came for food science technicians to test the products. “Employers came to us and said, ‘We’ve got jobs and we need people,’” Tucker said.
SWTC already had a medical laboratory technician program, but while there’s some overlap of baseline skills, the food science technician job would require more specialization, unique training, and different equipment.
So Tucker’s first step was to substantiate the need. Her team considered the food manufacturing industry as a whole, then scrutinized the occupations—and discovered a surprising truth. The demand for food science technicians was acute enough that lab technicians working in the medical industry were crossing over to retrain and work in the food industry.
“There’s demand for both kinds of technicians,” Tucker said. “That sealed the proof that a specialized program would prepare students for waiting jobs.”
Next, the team pulled the top requested skills on job postings, examined the skills provided by similar programs at sister colleges, and shared all of these with employers, who confirmed which skills were truly needed. In this way, SWTC homed in on the exact skills the new program should train for.
Since launching the laboratory science program, SWTC has teamed up with manufacturers to educate prospective students on the career opportunities in this somewhat unfamiliar, under-appreciated industry. Students are skittish of the unknown, so the college has coordinated helpful tours of food manufacturing facilities so that students might observe a day in the life of real technicians. “They actually see multiple jobs that we train for right there—not just lab technicians,” Tucker said.
A More Data-Centric Campus
SWTC’s program review process has borne fruit in unexpected places. Over several years, the attitude of the college system as a whole has grown more data-centric. In the past, the faculty used to come to Tucker’s department with ready-made decisions, requesting data to back them up. Now it’s the other way around: Faculty request data in order to make better decisions.
“One dean came to our department, asking for a gap analysis to see what the next program might be,” said Mandy Henkel, research analyst. “We’re getting more requests like that. They see the value of data and of the work we’re doing, and that’s very rewarding.”
As Loy noted, the team’s greatest asset is a solid understanding of how best to serve the region, thanks to data. “We’re all proficient in it,” she said. “Timeliness is everything. We can get answers to people.”
The best part of their work? Seeing data produce such a positive impact across the school. Programs are in shape. Students get the training they need. Employers know where to find the right talent.
“I’m so happy to have Emsi data on the ground level,” Tucker said. “We couldn’t do our jobs without it.”