How TSTC's 'Siri' is Helping Adults Get the Job Done

Higher Education

How TSTC's 'Siri' is Helping Adults Get the Job Done

Natural language processor equates curriculum to job skills

By Reeve Hamilton     Jul 29, 2014

How TSTC's 'Siri' is Helping Adults Get the Job Done

This article is part of the collection: Adult Learning: Building Paths to a Better Future.

With the launch of a new initiative on Monday, the Texas State Technical College System could help revolutionize how colleges align their curriculum with workforce demands and help their students match up better with employers’ needs.

The new Center for Employability Outcomes at TSTC will operate in close coordination with the Texas Workforce Commission, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and the Texas Education Agency.

The center is largely built around the Common Skills Language Project, the name being given to a more than five-year effort that originated at the Texas Workforce Commission. In an effort to get employers, educators, and policymakers on the same page for the purposes of economic development planning, the commission began amassing simple, industry-vetted descriptions of skills sought by employers in Texas.

That library now includes more than 3,000 “skill statements” — or “detailed work activities,” as the commission calls them. Examples include “analyze engineering problems in electronic manufacturing,” “Manage inventories or supplies,” and “Use knives to prepare food or animal products.” All together, the statements can be configured to describe roughly 900 occupations.

Michael Bettersworth, the associate vice chancellor for technology advancement at TSTC, likened the project to the way in which the Human Genome Project mapped the building blocks of DNA. “We’re basically doing the same thing,” he said. “We want to sequence curriculum, job postings and resumes.”

TSTC has been the commission’s education partner throughout the effort to build a common language. Bettersworth and his team realized that this could be a boon to their efforts to align their course offerings with the labor market. Following the system’s recent shift to a funding formula largely based on the income of former students, the incentives to be more responsive to industry needs are particularly high.

So, they built an application that allows college administrators to upload course curriculum and degree plans for analysis using the common skills language.

From Anecdotal to Data-Driven Curriculum

Using natural language processing similar to that found in IBM’s Watson or Apple’s Siri, the application allows administrators to upload course descriptions that are translated into the common skills language. The results are then mapped against the skill-sets — selected from the same library of statements — that industry experts say are actually needed in today’s workforce.

The analysis provides instructors and administrators a sense of the gaps between what is being taught — or not — and what employers are seeking to hire. They can then adjust their curriculum accordingly.

“We kind of built it because we needed it ourselves,” Bettersworth said. “In the process of doing this, we realized it had broad applications across the whole sector.”

Since 2011, 22 colleges in multiple states have tested out the program, referred to thus far as the Student Outcomes Alignment Application, to better tailor more than 900 courses to workforce needs.

Paul Potier, an Austin Community College professor of electronics and advanced technology, was among those testing the application early. Though he said changes would not occur overnight because proposed curriculum tweaks would still have to wind their way through the traditional approval process, he was excited to be participating.

“I think these guys have hit on a great model in that we are getting away from anecdotal information and into more data-driven decision-making,” Potier said.

TSTC is currently accepting applications for up to 20 additional Texas colleges to participate round of curriculum alignment using the beta version of the application scheduled to start in September.

To date, funds for activities related to the Common Skills Language Project have been provided by the related state agencies.

Bettersworth said the center will soon put out a request for proposals for a technology partner to help them expand the capacity of the platform and the make the skills statements library available for licensing. In doing so, he hopes TSTC can create a sustainable source of revenue that makes their efforts less dependent on grant funding.

Putting an Education to Work

Other applications related to the common skills language are also in early stages.

“We are just now starting to see the implications and ramifications of having this common skills language,” Richard Froeschle, the director of the Texas Workforce Commission’s Labor Market and Career Information department, who led the creation of the skills library.

Froeschle noted that the Workforce Commission recently launched its first public-facing application that uses the resource. Aimed at veterans, a specialized website allows individuals to upload their resumes, which are translated into skills statements and then — not unlike finding the best match on a dating site — connected to job postings around the state that have also been translated.

As an example of other possible applications, Froeschle said they have worked with companies like Chevron and Toyota on an experimental basis to analyze job postings and see if they are accurately communicating the skills needed for the job.

While the concept of a need for standardized way of discussing skills is not new, the data-centric approach being taken in Texas is drawing national attention.

“Everybody’s got their eyes on Texas on this one,” Anthonly Carnevale, the director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, said. “If they can do it, they’re going to be copied all over the country.”

It has been two decades since Congress approved the creation of the National Skills Standards Board, which also sought to develop a more cohesive approach to workforce development.

But, Carnevale said, such efforts too often turned out to be “a bunch of people with suits and ties talking with each other about what they thought everybody should know.”

Bettersworth said the work at the new Center for Employability Outcomes is different in that it is not intended to be prescriptive.

“We want to increase people’s employability by teaching them things that are the most relevant, and that’s it,” he said. “None of this tells the college what they must teach. None of this says here is the curriculum required to be a welder or an electrician. What were doing is showing which competencies have high market value versus low market value.”

This story was produced in partnership with The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that covers public policy, politics, government and other matters of statewide concern in Texas.

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