Data in Action: Using Labor-Market Alignment Data to Improve Career and Technical Education

by Julie Harris and Miya Warner, SRI International
August 31, 2020

(Reposted of an August 14, 2020 post on the REL Appalachia Blog. REL AP serves educators in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia to support use of data and evidence to improve academic outcomes for students.)

In a recent Institute of Education Sciences (IES) report, Regional Educational Laboratory Appalachia (REL AP) partnered with the West Virginia Department of Education (WVDE) to conduct a first-of-its-kind study to determine the alignment between the state’s high school career and technical education (CTE) offerings and high-demand occupations that do not require additional postsecondary education. A REL AP blog post highlighted five types of decisions that alignment data can inform. Here we share insights gained through conversations with WVDE about how CTE leaders might take the results of a study like this, combine them with additional information, and update CTE program offerings to improve student outcomes.

Moving from data to decisions

The CTE alignment study in West Virginia gave policymakers and stakeholders information about whether each of the state’s high school CTE programs aligns to a high-demand occupation within the region, state, or nation. But how do you move from a list of aligned and unaligned programs to programming decisions? Do you simply cut all the unaligned programs? It is not that simple. Since all studies have limitations, stakeholders must understand which pieces of the puzzle a given study fills in and which it leaves out. Moreover, state and district leaders have deep local knowledge that can provide context and nuance for some of the absent information.

Below, we describe some additional factors WVDE CTE leaders are considering regarding program decisions. While the specific study limitations and contextual information at play will vary by state, their approach to making sense of alignment data may be helpful for other state or district leaders contemplating conducting a similar study as they face similar decisions. WVDE CTE leaders are considering:

  • The number of students completing each CTE program. Understanding whether a CTE program is aligned or unaligned to the labor market is an important first step but does not tell the full story. Even for aligned programs it is important to examine whether too many or too few students complete them relative to labor-market demand. For example, many communities need programs for service-based industries (for example, cosmetology) but have openings for relatively few new workers per year.
  • State and local workforce development goals. States and localities often actively try to grow existing industries or attract new ones. For example, West Virginia is trying to expand aerospace, energy, and technology and information services, among others. CTE programs considered unaligned with current local industry needs may align with new or growing industry sectors and may prepare workers for jobs that don’t currently exist in the state. To understand the needs of new or rapidly growing industries, state leaders must examine labor market projection data over time, rather than depend on numbers from one point in time.
  • Alignment between high school and postsecondary CTE opportunities. Because of data limitations, the West Virginia study excluded occupations requiring postsecondary education and focused only on high school CTE programs. However, extending the analysis to include occupations that require postsecondary education could identify additional CTE programs that align with the labor market. With this extension, it would be beneficial to examine the alignment between high school and postsecondary CTE programs to reveal gaps in CTE educational opportunities throughout the educational pipeline. Identifying such gaps would help students satisfy the educational requirements of occupations that require postsecondary education.
  • Job markets in neighboring states.Since many communities are located near bordering states, it is critical for CTE leaders to consider whether programs unaligned to their state’s labor market are aligned with high-demand jobs just over the state’s border. After taking contextual considerations such as these into account, CTE leaders may decide that some programs designated as unaligned are still worth keeping, at least in the short term, while they may want to cut others. Similarly, student enrollment in aligned programs may need to be adjusted to ensure programs are not under- or oversupplying skilled workers relative to labor-market demand. Finally, state leaders may decide circumstances warrant additional research, such as a supply-demand analysis of the number of students CTE programs are graduating relative to projected labor-market openings or an analysis that includes postsecondary programs of study.

Resources for ongoing learning

This blog draws on the analysis and implications from the REL AP research study. Refer to the resources below to learn more about CTE programs in West Virginia and beyond.