When it comes to aligning our public higher-education systems with the workforce needs of our modern economy, state policy-makers are all too aware of a paradox: On the one hand, there is recognition of the need for more people to have college degrees, regardless of subject matter. On the other hand, workforce experts and business leaders agree that there is a "skills gap" wherein individuals with post-secondary education are unable to fill the jobs that are available or find employment consistent with their degrees.

There can be little doubt about the impact on a state's per-capita income of increasing the percentage of the public with any baccalaureate degree: The National Center for Higher Education Management calculates that correlation at .83. Meanwhile, however, the skills gap has contributed to a growing cynicism toward liberal-arts degrees, along with increased support for community colleges and interest in technical-training certificates.

These competing views of future workforce needs are reflected in two state policy and regulatory systems: higher education and labor. Each has its own mission, governance process, programs, constituencies, service providers and data systems. The task is to find ways to integrate these systems. When Utah Gov. Gary Herbert challenged the regents of his state's university system to come up with a plan to align post-secondary education with the state's workforce needs, we led an effort to identify best state practices throughout the country.

One method is to create coordinated data systems. Over $750 million in federal funds has been distributed to build Student Longitudinal Data Systems (SLDS) in 47 states. Guiding much of this work is the Data Quality Campaign, which has identified 10 state actions to serve as roadmaps for state policy-makers.

Unfortunately, however, most of this data has not been transferred into meaningful policy information. Education data languishes in "data warehouses." Except for a handful of states, it is safe to say the data has not played a key role in state policy-making on these issues. To address that problem, we came up with four recommendations for governors that fit into the Data Quality Campaign policy roadmap but offer a greater focus on leadership:

  1. Create a long-term vision articulated by the governor for an integrated system of education and workforce development. Typically, only the governor has the power to insist on the collaboration of education and labor. Good examples of gubernatorial leadership on this issue can be found Tennessee and Utah, where Govs. Phil Bredesen and Gary Herbert have led the effort to create a coordinated state plan based on common data.
  2. Create a state governing framework for longitudinal data. State policy-makers are drowning in data. States need to carefully define the studies that will be most helpful and then charge leaders with enough seniority and respect to place the studies within the context of state policy. We recommend that governors create an office, or assign an office close to them, with the responsibility to oversee data analysis and use. Legislatures may want to require use of the data for specific purposes. Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and Washington state have used specific metrics to assess institutional progress.
  3. Build a common language. Governors need to lead the conversation among the two systems to encourage common understanding. The key goal is to allow individuals to "cross walk" between job training and college degrees. Many postsecondary institutions are moving toward "stackable" credentials, where competency-based credentials for employment (such as certificates in manufacturing, real estate or accounting) can be used for college-degree attainment. And in Texas, a "Detailed Work Activities" program converts the state's labor exchange system, which is based on occupational titles, to one that is skills-based.
  4. Make use of the data. Governors can insist on an annual accountability report to show the specific uses of the SLDS-generated data. One of its powerful uses is to relate employment data directly to the mission of higher-education institutions. Many states have experience in this area, including Ohio, Pennsylvania and Tennessee, and several others have passed implementing legislation.

Clearly, our higher-education and workforce-development systems need to work together more effectively than they do today, and better use of data is the key. Our experience in Utah showed the value of gubernatorial leadership. With governors providing political muscle, vision and sustained commitment, we can go a long way toward making this important synergy happen.

This story was originally published by GoverningVOICES is curated by the Governing Institute, which seeks out practitioners and observers whose perspective and insight add to the public conversation about state and local government. For more information or to submit an article to be considered for publication, please contact editor John Martin.