How Can Communities Use Data for Continuous Improvement Strategies?

December 2016

As communities try to build a skilled workforce, data become invaluable in measuring both student progress and the needs of the local economy. Community partners can work together to gather and share data on student education and labor outcomes, high-demand skills, and gaps between student skills and employer needs. Using data for workforce alignment strategies is especially important for understanding the unique needs of different student populations and driving improvements for underserved students.

Read this chapter for an introduction to effective strategies for using data to better align postsecondary and workforce strategies. Learn how SA2020 in San Antonio, Texas is using real-time data to share information about student outcomes and labor market needs, and gain new tools and resources for using data in your community.

Data-Sharing Agreements: Does your community want to ease the process of data sharing between partner organizations? Sharing data between partners may not be an easy feat because data are sometimes guarded for internal use. To facilitate collaboration, it is helpful to have a data-sharing agreement or memorandum of understanding to specify terms for sharing information in a fair, timely, and transparent manner.

Real-Time Data: Does your community want to gain a better understanding of education and labor market gaps? When considering workforce needs, communities should leverage partnerships to gather and share real-time data based on the most up-to-date student outcomes and labor market information. Communities can use this data to gain a better understanding of education and labor market gaps, and inform decision-making to prepare students for in-demand careers.

Skills Gap Analysis: Does your community want to better understand gaps between student skills and employer needs? Comparing data on student skills and job qualifications is a useful starting point to determine workforce alignment strategies.

Partnerships can draw on administrative data from institutions and state and national datasets from federal agencies, such as the National Center for Education Statics, Census Bureau, and Bureau of Labor Statistics. By using data disaggregated by characteristics including race, ethnicity, age, sex, and income, communities gain a better understanding of how the qualifications gap differs between student populations and can design tailored workforce alignment strategies.

Data Dashboards: Does your community want to offer readily accessible information to students, employers, and community members? Data dashboards are online tools that share a variety of indicators measuring student achievement and workforce needs, and they may be updated and modified at any time. For example, a community that wants to improve workforce alignment among its African American or Latino residents may post a variety of indicators by race or ethnic group; meanwhile, a county that is concentrating its resources on promoting career pathways programs at its community colleges may provide more detailed data on student outcomes from these institutions.

Collaborative Data Systems: Does your community want to gather and share information about student education and labor market outcomes? Cross-sector partnerships can also build collaborative data systems to share relevant information on the local labor market and student outcomes. In order to have a full understanding of student persistence, completion, and employment outcomes—especially among underserved students—data must be collected from many different sources along the education-to-career pathway and illustrate differences between student populations.

SA2020, San Antonio, Texas: Using Data to Strengthen the College-to-Career Pipeline

IHEP spoke with Molly Cox from SA2020, a community development nonprofit created through a collaborative strategic initiative in San Antonio, Texas. The initiative has led an effort to collect real-time data on educational attainment and the labor market; it then makes the information readily available to the community to inform strategies for aligning postsecondary and workforce initiatives. Read this interview to find out how SA2020 uses data to strengthen the college-to-career pipeline, especially to help adult students and disconnected youth pursue careers in the city’s growing industries.


IHEP: Why was SA2020 started and who led the initial collaboration?

SA2020 began in 2010 as a community visioning process led by the mayor at the time, Julian Castro. The initial idea came from personnel in the mayor’s office, because they recognized that it had been several years since the community came together to develop a shared vision for the future of our city. We started with a steering committee composed of business and community leaders. The committee then organized a series of public planning meetings, in which nearly 6,000 people participated, to create a vision for the future of San Antonio in eleven key areas, including education and economic competitiveness.

IHEP: How did SA2020 develop goals for education and workforce alignment, with a particular focus on middle-skills jobs?

Using a grant from Lumina, we created a task force comprised of education and industry leaders that helped identify a skills gap in the community for middle-skills jobs (those that require more than a high school diploma but less than a bachelor’s degree). We were finding that the high school graduation rate was increasing across the community, but we were not seeing gains in college enrollment or degree and professional certificate attainment. At the same time, industry leaders were telling us that high school graduates lacked the skills necessary for available jobs. In San Antonio, for example, we’re producing one person for every 10 information technology jobs currently available, and one person for every two health care and biosciences jobs currently available. And just like the rest of the country, we’re about to move into a mass exodus of retirees, particularly in the advanced manufacturing industry.


IHEP: Who are the key stakeholders for SA2020 and how have they shaped the partnership?

SA2020’s key stakeholder is the community at large, because they built the vision that we work every day to help make a reality. Our work is based on a foundation of support from area nonprofit organization and the City of San Antonio, and over the past four years, we have focused on driving alignment between different systems. Everyone is invested and engaged, and brings with them a different lens on how to improve alignment. The SA2020 partnership provides a “30,000-foot view” of how the community is going to achieve our vision for the future, including increased college attainment, and how each stakeholder can take one piece of the pie to make it happen.

IHEP: How has having strong leadership from the city government shaped the SA2020 partnership and the ability to reach your goals?

Having strong leadership from the mayor played a huge part in getting stakeholders to the table. Leadership from the city council and large community organizations was also key. After our community visioning process, the city and other partners adopted SA2020’s goals and started using them as benchmarks for community improvement projects. And because we had nearly 6,000 people take part in the process, the community at large has been really invested in the success of the partnership and reaching our goals for improving education in San Antonio.

IHEP: Which other community partners have contributed to the success of SA2020?

I think the smartest thing we did when forming the partnership was to bring in leaders from all areas of the community, not just the usual stakeholders. When you put together a steering committee for economic development, particularly at the citywide level, you typically include owners of larger businesses, presidents of banks, and other industry leaders. For our partnership, we also wanted to include a variety of stakeholders, including faith-based leaders, artists, educators, and civic leaders. By bringing in a cross section of people from the community, we’ve been able to create a vision for the future of our city from multiple viewpoints, not just an economic perspective.

For our partnership, we also wanted to include a variety of stakeholders, including faith-based leaders, artists, educators, and civic leaders. By bringing in a cross section of people from the community, we’ve been able to create a vision for the future of our city from multiple viewpoints, not just an economic perspective.


IHEP: How did SA2020 develop a strategy for using real-time data?

From the start, SA2020’s goal has not been to merely create a vision for San Antonio but to know if we’re making progress toward that vision. For example, we asked ourselves if we want to have the greatest education turnaround in the nation, where all students have opportunities regardless of their socioeconomic background. What indicators would tell us if we were making progress? During the initial visioning process, we got input from all of our participants to decide what community-level indicators we should use to measure success.

IHEP: How do you know that you’re using the right indicators to measure success?

Initially, the community decided to collect data and report on about 65 indicators across the 11 SA2020 vision areas. We then sought advice from content experts in each vision area to make sure the indicators were valid, reliable, and measurable. With their input, we eliminated indicators that either (1) weren’t measurable or (2) wouldn’t give us a big-picture view of our progress. The content experts also helped us add a few more indicators that would help us measure success. It was an iterative process.

IHEP: Has the data informed SA2020’s target populations and how you develop strategies to meet their needs?

The data helped identify two target populations for our education and workforce programs: (1) adults who started college but did not complete a degree, and (2) youth ages 16–24 who have become disconnected from either education or the job market. Overall, we’re using the data to monitor and align college enrollment, degree attainment, and job market needs. If the data show that we’re not meeting our goals fast enough, I think we have to then discuss making changes to our strategies. For example, when we released the Talent Pipeline Task Force Report, we used data to develop very specific strategies to prepare students for middle-skills jobs and recommendations to move us toward our education and economic competiveness goals. More than half of the strategies and recommendations are currently being implemented. Our next step is to evaluate whether the strategies are moving the needle and resulting in small gains that ultimately will lead to our overarching college attainment goal.

IHEP: Why did SA2020 decide to report progress through a data dashboard?

We knew that we wanted to publish an annual report, but we also felt that reporting data only once per year wouldn’t be the best way to show progress. Ultimately, we had a conversation with our data partner, Community Information: NOW (CI: NOW), about the best way to share information. Our partner helped us develop the idea for an online data dashboard that could be updated regularly, in contrast to an annual report that becomes outdated a few months after being released.

IHEP: How does real-time data inform SA2020’s strategy for postsecondary and workforce alignment?

One outcome of collecting real-time data is that we’ve been better able to identify skills gaps and develop strategies to strengthen our workforce based on actual employer needs. For our Talent Pipeline Task Force Report, which was released in 2015, education and industry leaders in the community recommended data from a variety of sources to gather and analyze. In partnership with these community leaders, CI: NOW, the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, and Workforce Solutions Alamo (WSA), we looked at labor market data for our three targeted industries: (1) health care and bioscience, (2) information technology and cybersecurity, and (3) advanced manufacturing. We also compared labor market data with data about educational attainment gathered from national data sources, such as the American Community Survey. All of this information serves as a baseline for measuring our progress in postsecondary attainment and workforce development.


IHEP: What has been the impact of SA2020’s focus on data collection and analysis?

I think SA2020 has given the community at large a better understanding of how to use data and tell our transformation story. For example, by using the data we can tell the story of students moving through early childhood education, K-12, higher education, and into the workforce. In San Antonio, we’ve already seen positive shifts in primary and secondary education, but we’re not yet seeing the progress we want for postsecondary education. We know that postsecondary education needs to be an ongoing focus. The data are sending us a red flag, and it’s our job to figure out why current strategies are not working and what we can do to drive progress. The information gives us an opportunity to move people to action and focus on the areas that need the most attention.

It’s also important to use the data in a way that benefits everyone at the table and to get buy-in from people who could validate the information at a local level. This is a long and hard process.

IHEP: How have your community and local policymakers reacted to the data you present?

The community is starting to make connections between the city-level and program-level data. We’re able to see which specific strategies and programs are producing positive results for our students, and that’s led to changes in how people are donating money or volunteering their time.

From a policy perspective, the conversation about how best to spend funds on developing the workforce in our growing industries has changed. For example, based on the data analysis from the Talent Pipeline Task Force, the City of San Antonio and the broader region of Bexar County have made developing our workforce a top priority. The City of San Antonio and the larger region of Bexar County came together to help fund two workforce alignment initiatives. The first is SAWorks, an experiential learning program that helps students in eighth and ninth grade get internships at local companies. The second is WSA, a career-advising nonprofit focused on using real-time labor market data to connect students to middle-skills jobs.

IHEP: What lessons learned could SA2020 share with other communities looking to better use data to inform workforce alignment strategies?

First, it’s important to have champions and leaders who can encourage stakeholders to work collaboratively. It’s also important to use the data in a way that benefits everyone at the table and to get buy-in from people who could validate the information at a local level. This is a long and hard process. I think when we originally started talking about collecting data, we thought it would take a year and then we could move on to other efforts. In reality, it took us nearly a year and a half just to create the Talent Pipeline Task Force Report.

IHEP: What’s next for SA2020?

We’re increasing efforts for our economic development work and trying to really make sure that economic development is driving education, and vice versa. We’re also doing a lot around collective impact and trying to help people see how much more successful you can be when you have a clear goal and shared measurements in place. We’re starting to use our data to evaluate program success and engage the community at large.

I think the success of SA2020 is that we’re working on two things at once: systems change and behavioral change. To align postsecondary and workforce strategies, we’re working with industry leaders, educational institutions, and other stakeholders to create system change. We’re also working to express the importance of the work to the community at large and the impact for people who may want to move up a career ladder or may want to complete a degree. Most importantly, we do this in partnership, connecting and convening the players who will ultimately carry the torch well past 2020.

We’re also doing a lot around collective impact and trying to help people see how much more successful you can be when you have a clear goal and shared measurements in place. We’re starting to use our data to evaluate program success and engage the community at large.


Burning Glass Technologies

Communities can use services from Burning Glass to gather data about their local labor market and better identify gaps between employee skills and employer needs.

U.S. Department of Labor Guide to State and Local Workforce Data

This tool from the Department of Labor can help communities learn about various sources of workforce data, many of which are free and publicly available, that can be used to inform local, regional, and statewide workforce alignment initiatives.

Strive Together: Data-Sharing Agreement Template

Use this template from the Strive Together network as a model to formalize collaboration between different community stakeholders to gather and share data on student progress and outcomes.

Additional Resources

Success in Real Time: Using Real-Time Labor Market Information to Build Better Middle-Skill STEM Pathways [2015: Jobs for the Future]

The Jobs for the Future report focuses on how real-time data can be used to simultaneously align workforce training and labor market needs. In particular, this report addresses how using real-time data can assist in developing career pathways for high-demand STEM careers that are available to students with less than a bachelor’s degree.

Making Workforce Data Work: How Improved Education and Workforce Data Systems Could Help the U.S. Compete in the 21st Century Economy [2014: Workforce Data Quality Campaign]

This report from the Workforce Data Quality Campaign includes steps for state and local policymakers to improve workforce alignment by using data. The report recommends creating state-level data systems to collect data, create longitudinal records, and analyze outcomes in order to strengthen workforce alignment initiatives.