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Connecting Skills to Opportunities

How Nevada is Operationalizing Skills Data in Workforce Development

May 4, 2021 by Drew Repp

The State of Nevada is on top of things. For close to 10 years they’ve been focused on where industry is going and what it means for the future of work in the state. State leaders like Bob Potts, deputy director at the Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED) have recognized its legacy industries (gaming, entertainment, and tourism) have been on a maturing path for decades. They’ve thus been working to identify the state’s comparative advantages in various industries to better diversify. 

“We looked at advanced manufacturing, technology, healthcare, logistics and operations, and energy,” Potts said.“We were doing reverse staffing patterns for those sectors, looking at their workforce, seeing what our inventory was, where our gaps were compared to the national average. We looked at location quotient, STEM occupations, real-time data—all that.”

Potts and his team at GOED use this labor market knowledge to provide guidance, education, and workforce support across the state. 

“The data drives those strategies,” added Stacey Bostwick, director of workforce development at GOED. “What are the assets we have in those targeted industries? What gaps are we trying to fill? We use those to have conversations with industry, coordinated with education partners, and ask, ‘How can we do this and what’s working and what’s not working?’”

And the data-driven strategies have been working. “Great strides were made in the last decade and it really plays out in the numbers,” Potts said.

But COVID-19 has threatened those gains. Almost overnight the state was faced with the problem of transitioning workers—many of them from the large hospitality sector—into new opportunities. To do this, the state needed to look at the market through a different frame of reference than traditional labor market data. But the answer wasn’t new data, it was expediting implementation of skills data they had already begun working with.

Responding to COVID with Skills

Nevada hit a labor force participation rate low of 58% in May 2020. While that number has rebounded to 62% in March 2021, it’s still well below its pre-COVID level of 65% a year prior. Getting dislocated workers into in-demand jobs is tough work under normal circumstances. Doing so in the wake of a worldwide virus outbreak complicates things a bit. “You’re in the right place at the wrong time,“ Bostwick said. “Because being in a workforce space during the pandemic, your work is exponentially more challenging and difficult, especially in Nevada.”

But to meet the challenge, Nevada is leveraging skills data. Which allows them to be more responsive and personalized in its support of jobseekers. Skills describe someone’s knowledge, experience, or ability. Skills are the language used by people (in their resumes and online profiles), employers (in their job postings), and education institutions (in their syllabi). 

Too often people sell themselves short by believing that only formal education or particular job titles demonstrate their ability to perform a task. By examining people and jobs through the lens of skills, the range of pathways and opportunities available to jobseekers becomes more clear. Potts summarizes the power of skills data this way: “Skills help folks think about the anatomy of themselves, and businesses to think about the anatomy of themselves, differently than what we traditionally do when we talk about job titles, degrees, whatever it might be.”

Putting skills data to work

Even prior to COVID, state leaders knew that skills data was key to their economic and workforce development efforts. ”Nevada has long recognized that to diversify outside of our captive industry we’re going to be entrenched in a skills conversation,” noted Bostwick. “Because we need to be able to utilize the existing talents and skills of our workforce and to pivot, and we have to recognize they have skills. It’s just a matter of a small gap or a big gap.”

But COVID accelerated the need to put the power of skills data to use. Using Emsi Skills they deployed Nevada SkillsMatch, an online platform to help displaced workers identify their skills and receive personal career and educational recommendations. To make local education recommendations, Emsi mapped nearly 1,800 programs and more than 18,000 courses to skills sought by employers in job postings.  

Unlike a job board, Nevada SkillsMatch begins with the unique jobseeker, who self-selects skills acquired through education, training, past experience, and everyday life. Additionally, jobseekers identify the skills they would like to learn. The end result is that they receive personalized recommendations to get them from where they are to where they want to be. All based on skills.    

Connecting people, educators, and employers in this way has long been recognized as a need. But different databases, coding systems, and manners of data collection have prevented much progress. Fortunately, using the language of skills allows for data from all three areas to be aggregated in one platform and make far better connections for jobseekers.

“We needed SkillsMatch to provide that immediate response. It was ready to make all kinds of connections,” Bostwick said. 

And workforce leaders knew they would have a captive audience. A recent labor supply survey found that roughly a third of respondents didn’t expect their job to come back or to have a job to move into.

Nevada SkillsMatch went live in January of this year. By March it had 2,100 unique visitors, 68% of which explored job postings and 16% learned about a course or program. Leaders such as Potts and Bostwick are excited about being able to connect with jobseekers in this way. 

“I think the discovery for individuals once they engage with the platform is hugely attractive,” Potts said. “And I think it’s encouraging at a time when encouragement is paramount for a lot of folks. That’s a pretty cool thing. You can actually use a data platform to encourage people.”

Joining Potts and Bostwick in mobilizing Nevada SkillsMatch is Isla Young, who serves as the executive director of the Governor’s Office of Workforce Innovation (OWINN). OWINN’s purpose is to help drive a skilled, diverse, and aligned workforce in the state by promoting cooperation and collaboration among all entities focused on workforce development. Young echoes Potts’ sentiments: “Part of Emsi SkillsMatch is providing people the realization that you are valuable, you are special, you do come to the table with skills that you can use. And let’s help you connect with these different high growth and high demand areas in Nevada.” 

As the long-term impacts of the pandemic and recovery efforts continue to play out, Potts and Bostwick anticipate even more people will turn to the tool. While many displaced workers began searching for another opportunity, many others held out hope their job would come back. But if they sense that likeliness fading, or the job they are able to return to looks much different, their need to identify how their skills transfer to a new opportunity grows.      

“Data seems to indicate that a large contingent in the workforce were expecting their job to come back. But one of the more recent trends that we’ve been seeing is that as things are opening up those jobs aren’t coming back,” noted Bostwick. “And so people who were optimistic or ideally that was their first choice, that was their priority, find they must adapt.” 

High hopes of their job returning isn’t the only factor causing workers to hold out. 

“It’s a very wonky time,” Potts said. That’s because factors such as unemployment insurance benefits, stimulus checks, lack of childcare, and concerns about workplace safety are keeping people out of the labor market, even as employers are looking to fill openings. In discussing the overall job counts in the state being down, but recent unemployment rate improving, Potts pointed out the oddity: “How can you have both of those things happening at the same time,” he said. “So the labor market shrunk, but we know there’s tens of thousands of people that are on the curb that are still part of the labor force, but they’re not being counted. And when they’re not being counted, leadership, decisions, and policies aren’t taking that into account.”

This creates another urgency in getting people off the sidelines. And it’s the personalized nature of skills data that provides a needed advantage when supporting people re-entering the workforce.

The power of timely and personalized data

Nevada was well positioned to make the best of a bad situation. With strategies and target industries already built with labor market information (LMI), they knew where the state needed to go. COVID threw a wrinkle in things by compressing the time frame. “There’s been a big shift and this has really amped it up. A lot of things that would have taken 10 years to move forward have been compressed into a year,” Potts said.

LMI is accurate, reliable, and comprehensive, making it vital for strategic planning and answering many workforce questions. But one thing it isn’t is timely. Making it difficult to respond and adjust to evolving situations.

“One of the first questions that came at me was who’s hiring,” Potts said. Data from job postings and profiles allows decision makers to answer that question and understand the current state of the labor market. In this way, postings and profiles data (and the skills therein) doesn’t replace LMI, but builds on it by adding a real time component.

Nevada SkillsMatch uses the skills of jobseekers—from their resume, education, past experience, and those they self select—to match them to the skills being sought by employers in job postings. If there are skills a jobseeker wants to learn, or needs to learn to pursue their desired job, local training recommendations are made to close that skill gap. This flips the job board experience on its head, starts with the individual, and speaks their language.

“We need to keep this very human centered in everything that we’re designing, and remember that it’s actual human beings that need help,” said Young. “Sometimes you’re looking at things so big that you forget at the heart of what’s most important is the people.”

“This is something that speaks people-speak,” added Potts. “People don’t speak in terms of a lot of the jargon that’s in the labor market data or in program data out there. They speak like what you guys have done with SkillsMatch.” 

Using the language of jobseekers and connecting with where they are at personalizes the platform. The result is the opportunity to reach more people, especially those that aren’t on traditional career or education paths. 

“I think it’s pretty profound when you start digging into it,” suggested Potts. “Someone that for instance is a housekeeper in a hotel property on the Las Vegas strip. They have a huge amount of collateral to offer in a setting that might not be readily apparent. And being able to take their experience, working with people, working with their hands, whatever it might be in whatever venue and saying, ‘How does that translate? How does that transfer into something else, into the needs of who’s hiring or where the future of work is going?’ That’s the thought and dream behind operationalizing skills data into the state.”  

Using skills data in this way is a piece in a larger puzzle of getting Nevadans back to work and reimagining workforce development. With the community college system, work is being done to align training with skills being sought by employers (high-value credentials). Similarly, discussions have begun of how skills can transfer to credit at universities.

But for many jobseekers, traditional higher education isn’t a likely path. “Many of our dislocated workers have never stepped foot on a college campus,” Young noted. “Because they’re terrified that they won’t fit in.” To meet these individuals where they’re at, various access points are being established. 

“We’re working with the library systems from across the state because they are the easiest point of entry for a lot of people. So if they don’t want to go to community college because they feel intimidated, well, let’s go to your local library where all you need is a library card and we’ve got all of these training programs and we’ll help guide you,” Young said. 

And they are truly being guided. Navigators have been hired to assist with both the education side and the personal wraparound services jobseekers may need for success.

Accelerated skills trend

COVID has been described as “the great accelerator.” Many trends, from remote work and migration to housing crunches and online retail, were already in motion. The virus merely kicked them into high gear.

The same is true for economic and workforce development. For example, following Amazon’s HQ2 search, many communities and organizations called for a return to a focus on business retention and local business support. COVID expedited this focus as communities rallied to support their businesses amidst lockdowns and restrictions.  

Similarly, prior to the virus, skills were already shifting how communities approached the future of work. The upheaval of 2020 merely accelerated the process. And this may be one of a few silver linings. For states like Nevada, which had been laying the groundwork to complement their LMI with skills data, COVID accelerated the transition to a better approach for serving dislocated workers as well as those that are underemployed or seeking a career change.

With Nevada’s rollout of SkillsMatch, Potts sees the opportunity to use skills to meet needs across the state and serve more than just those impacted by the pandemic. “It’s very approachable, available to everybody,” he said. “Urban, rural, north, south, across the state—not only for folks that were dislocated, but also for folks thinking about a career change or something they’ve always dreamed of doing.” 

Helping people make such a career change or pursue a dream job has long been a driving force behind data in workforce development. And skills double down on the power of data to help make better decisions. 

“A huge piece we’re seeing is people don’t have a clue as to what is available outside of their comfort zone,” said Young. “So if they’re able to use SkillsMatch, not only do they get to see how their skills align with other areas, but also how to find the training programs that are out there. And then how that links into actual employment.”

“I’m a big proponent of being able to share data so people can make decisions,” added Bostwick. “Because a lot of times people either don’t know that the data’s out there or don’t know the long-term ramifications of their decisions.” 

A tool like SkillsMatch, which can be accessed online and is approachable and uses familiar skills language, puts that data in the hands of jobseekers so they can make better decisions.

Innovative approaches like Nevada’s use of skills data are reshaping workforce development. Join us for our May 13th webinar Rethinking Workforce Development, where three communities will share their new strategies for meeting needs of jobseekers.  

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