Community colleges seek access to wage information

By JACK NISSEN
Capital News Service

LANSING —  Alpena Community College was one of five Michigan community colleges  in 2015 to make the Aspen Institute’s prestigious list of top 150 community colleges in the country.

It was a point of pride for the college’s president, Don MacMaster.

But to be considered among the top 10 schools on that list, the school needed to report where its graduates work and how much they earn. The problem: Alpena Community College doesn’t have access to that data so it couldn’t apply for top-10 status.

And unlike universities, neither does any community college or trade school in Michigan. A bill, which has passed the House, would change that.

“That was the impetus to push on the system, to get access to that data,” MacMaster said. “The legislation reflects the efforts from the community colleges to make the case for the value of what students can do.”

The information is held by Michigan’s Unemployment Insurance Agency. Unlike universities, community colleges can’t access that data. The information can be helpful in adjusting course programs and deciding where school resources should be diverted.

“Quite honestly, this information can’t be drawn by the community colleges simply by calling their alumni and getting their information,” said Rep. Jim Ellison, D-Royal Oak. “That becomes very burdensome.”

Ellison introduced the bill  to make that information accessible to trade schools and community colleges — but not just for the sake of meeting criteria for a nation-wide award. Wage record data tells a lot about the benefits and problems that an educational or training program might have. And it can guide them to make improvements.

Supporters of the bill say the information would help them further mold their curriculum to match what industries need from the schools’ graduates.

“There are two key reasons why this data helps, said Tim Nelson, the president of Northwestern Michigan College in Traverse City. “First off, if we’re pointing someone toward an industry, we want to know if there are even jobs out there. Then we want to be able to say how much money they could make in that job.”

Wage data helps educators understand the extent that an institution’s technical training and workforce development translate to employment, said Michele Economou Ureste, the executive director of Workforce Intelligence Network, a nonprofit agency that generates labor market data and organizes training workforce development for Southeast Michigan.

“You can’t manage unless you measure, so everything needs to be data-driven,” she said.

All public or private employer that pay a payroll tax submit salary and wage data on their employees to the Unemployment Insurance Agency. That includes whether someone is employed, where they’re employed, for how long and at what salary.

Community colleges would cross-reference this information with the names of their alumni.

It’s not just the Workforce Intelligence Network that supports this bill. Other groups representing skilled trade schools like Michigan Works! and officials from Oakland Community College and Washtenaw Community College have testified in support of the bill.

“When we’re looking at training programs at community colleges or Michigan Works! programs, one of the things we want to measure is the success of our programs,” said Bill Sleight, the executive director of Michigan Works! Southeast. “When we send someone to a community college program in welding or heating and cooling, we want to make sure that we understand what the likelihood is those folks will get jobs once they finish training.”

“If we’re investing in programs that don’t have any long-term impact, we’ll want to take a look at those programs and see what the real issue is,” Sleight said.

Because the market for skilled trades is in constant motion, work groups like Sleight’s can use the data to better predict the future of the industry and where the needs for jobs will be.

Ureste said Michigan has a shortage of skilled trade workers numbering in the tens of thousands. Jobs in robotics, information technology, welding, carpentry and lead removal are vacant.

The data can guide institutions in deciding where to redirect their resources.

“Of course workforce development should be data-driven,” she said. “With technology moving so fast, we really can’t waste any more resources on programs that aren’t necessary.”

If a community college wants the same data, it must follow up with its graduates. And the results come with a mixture of inaccurate data and no-answers.

Ellison said he isn’t sure why universities have access to such information while community colleges don’t, but he guesses it could be because they weren’t as prevalent as they are now.

The bill made it through the House with only one vote against.

If it is signed into law, not just anyone could get access the information. As with the universities, an administrative official would be responsible for the data remaining private.

Ellison says the availability of confidential information is a legitimate concern, and one that the bill takes into account.

“These public institutions already have far more sensitive information on each of us,” he said. “All this bill really does is it puts it (wage data) in one spot to see how successful schools’ programs are.”

Michael Hansen, president of the Michigan Community College Association, said he is unaware of significant opposition and expects to see the bill signed before the end of the year.