May 30, 2019 by Gwen Burrow
Israel Dominguez believes in a mission. As the director of economic and workforce development at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, California, he believes in the importance of preparing a skilled workforce and giving students the right education for good careers.
“We directly affect our service area,” Dominguez says, speaking of the critical role that economic development plays within program development. “Our mission is to increase the wealth of the workers, the wealth of the population, and ultimately the wealth of the whole region.”
Dominguez is a busy one-man band. He conducts all the labor market research for Saddleback’s career technical education (CTE) programs, providing labor market information for program review, program development, and any curriculum updates. But fortunately, with 12 years in economic and workforce development (four at Saddleback, eight at Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo), Dominguez is also a veteran user of labor market data.
“It’s a lot, but I’m fast,” he acknowledges. He has relied heavily on Analyst, Emsi’s labor market analytics tool that helps colleges align programs with employer demand. “We make a lot of data-driven decisions using Analyst. It helps us do our job: to deliver customized training that helps develop the skills of students and incumbent workers, improve the productivity of regional businesses, and create stability in the economy.”
Dominguez is always looking for ways to prepare a skilled workforce and help students figure out the best programs for their career goals. Regarding the employability of graduates from Saddleback’s CTE programs—accounting, emergency medical technician, advanced manufacturing, to name a few—the college staff had no doubt. But a big plot twist came four years ago when Dominguez approached the liberal arts.
It began with a hunch. Two hunches, actually. An informal chat sparked an internal debate about whether Saddleback’s liberal arts programs were merely transfer programs. The college’s operating assumption was one shared by many colleges today: an associate’s degree in Saddleback’s liberal arts programs (journalism, ESL, philosophy, and others) was useful only as preparation for a teaching career, or else as a springboard to a better and brighter degree at a four-year university.
“It was a casual conversation,” Dominguez remembers. “The dean of our liberal studies program made the comment that students come in order to transfer to a ‘real’ degree, or else to become teachers. But based on my own experience in the corporate world, I told him, ‘I believe there are other options and career paths.’”
Dominguez had the gut feeling that liberal arts students—across the US, not just at Saddleback—possess skills that prepare them for a variety of careers beyond the academic world. But he had nothing to support this intuition besides pure anecdotal evidence. Over the course of his career, Dominguez knew he had worked with many professionals in areas such as sales, marketing, or public relations who also hailed from a liberal arts background. But what could simple stories prove?
“The dean wanted data to prove my theory,” he says. “The question was, what kind of skills do our students have at the end of their AA? What are they marketable in? What occupations are they ready for? Can they get good jobs with just this two-year program, or do they have to transfer?”
First, Dominguez used Analyst to run an occupation overview for Saddleback’s journalism program. He discovered that journalism alumni were employed not just as teachers, but as marketing coordinators, account executives, and sales executives, and many others—all high-demand, strong-wage occupations.
More interestingly, he also observed the skills associated with the alumni’s workforce profiles. The top hard skills included public relations, business development, advertising sales, marketing strategies, and accounting. The top soft skills included vital but hard-to-teach abilities such as management, communication, customer service, innovation, and leadership. These were all skills emphasized by the journalism program; students hadn’t needed to transfer to a different degree in order to prepare for their careers.
So far, so good, but Dominguez wanted even greater proof. He broadened his search and chased the same information for several related degrees: speech communications, education, general organizational leadership, and human services. The careers associated with these liberal arts degrees told the same story as journalism: alumni were working in a variety of high-wage, in-demand careers. Most importantly, these workers didn’t hold anything beyond their liberal arts degree; they hadn’t had to seek additional education outside Saddleback. Their liberal arts training had given them the very skills they needed.
Hunch verified! Dominguez’s research confirmed his suspicions and helped him demonstrate the truth to the rest of the college: Saddleback’s liberal arts students didn’t need to transfer to another school in order to gain employable skills. They were already qualified for a variety of viable careers—thanks to the potent combination of hard and soft skills.
“I compiled the data in a report for our dean,” Dominguez says. “And the dean told me that in the 17 years he’s been here, no one has showed him a report like that whatsoever: proving demand and opportunities for our liberal arts students.”
Dominguez’s report was just the beginning. Validating the liberal arts programs internally was a win, but his success wouldn’t mean much unless he could communicate the programs’ value to current and prospective students.
This is true for every college. It is especially true for Saddleback, located just southeast of Los Angeles. The region’s strong economy, low unemployment, and high cost of living put the pressure on institutions to prove gainful employment. Facing a plethora of career options that could earn $100-200K salaries, students aren’t easily enticed by programs that don’t appear to lead anywhere special. So Dominguez’s next task was to make sure current and prospective students knew the value of Saddleback’s liberal arts programs.
Thanks to Dominguez’s data, college counselors can now tell students about the wide world of career options if they go into liberal arts. The website’s liberal arts page also features handy, downloadable career fliers showing pathway options for program areas such as English, humanities, journalism, and philosophy.
“Do you want to learn about human culture?” asks the flier for humanities. “Do you want a job?” The two scenarios appear to mutually exclude each other. But not so, says Saddleback. “Humanities classes focus on the development of critical thinking skills: skills which are highly sought after and difficult to teach.” The flier then lists just a few of the career outcomes for humanities alumni: sales reps, marketing managers, lawyers, CEOs, and more.
“With the data in our conversations with students and on our website, we can better inform our students of the careers they can get into, the number of jobs out there, and the earning potential,” Dominguez says. “Now students can make a much more informed decision.”
The spread of information appears to be working. Following national trends, enrollment in Saddleback’s liberal arts programs has dropped slightly over the past couple years. Completions, however, have gone up. This rise in completions, despite the decline in enrollment, indicates that while fewer students are entering the programs, more are sticking around to finish. They aren’t treating the liberal arts as mere transfer programs.
In November 2018, four years after Israel Dominguez swam against the tide with his hunch, Emsi and the Strada Institute for the Future of Work released a groundbreaking report on the skills and employability of liberal arts grads across the nation. “Robot-Ready: Human+ Skills for the Future of Work” revealed that liberal arts grads, far from suffering the “guess I’ll go be a barista” curse, actually thrive in many career areas such as marketing, public relations, technology, and sales. These grads earn competitive wages and are highly versatile, mobile workers.
“The sheer scope of Emsi’s report was an eye-opener,” Dominguez says. “The report impacted me, our dean, and our faculty. It gave us a broader understanding of the demand for skills that individuals can get through the liberal arts—on both the regional and national level. The power of a liberal arts degree isn’t just true at Saddleback. It’s true everywhere.”
Following a hunch that contradicted what everyone “knew” has helped Dominguez embody the importance of using data to verify (or disprove) prevailing impressions. It is also helping him fulfill his mission.
“I want to make a difference in this world,” he says. “I want to make a positive difference for this college, for this community, and for our students. If, through my efforts and those of others, we are improving the lives of our students and adding to the economic prosperity of our region, then at the end of the day I feel like I’ve done a good job.”
Israel Dominguez will be presenting on his liberal arts report at Emsi2019, the ninth annual Emsi users’ conference, September 16-18, in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. Register here. If you have questions about Analyst or any of Emsi’s solutions for higher education, please contact us.