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Students in a nursing class at Missoula College in Montana. Data show that nursing is among the highest-demand professions in the state. Credit: Kristine T. Paulsen for The Hechinger Report

MISSOULA, Mont. — The nursing students at Missoula College wield their medical syringes with life-and-death intensity, even though they’re only practicing on fruit.

This bright, high-ceilinged classroom overlooking the Clark Fork River buzzes with enthusiasm born of not only the knowledge that such work is important, but also that registered nursing is among the highest-demand occupations in Montana.

It’s not just an assumption based on this state’s aging population — nearly a fifth of Montanans are 65 and older, according to the Census Bureau — and a looming wave of retirements among nurses who will have to be replaced. It’s a scientific projection using data from employers and state agencies to help determine which subjects colleges should and shouldn’t teach and steer students to the highest-paying occupations that the state most needs to fill.

If this sounds like an obvious way to close the gap between workforce demand and the supply of qualified graduates — and to maximize the benefits to students of an increasingly expensive higher education — it’s rarely undertaken in the way Montana has embraced it.

“Why haven’t we been doing this all across the country?” asked Gov. Steve Bullock, who is also chairman of the National Governors Association. “It seems like common sense, but not enough states have done it.”

Instead, many colleges and universities rely on outdated federal government data about employer needs, continue offering majors whose graduates can’t get work, take years to create new courses in subjects for which businesses have immediate openings, or ignore altogether the question of whether their programs are training students for jobs.

“There’s a disconnect at times, unfortunately, between state government, the business community and higher education,” Bullock said in an interview at his office in the state capitol building in Helena. “There’s often been sort of the separation of, ‘We’re higher education, we do what we do.’ ‘We’re state government, we do what we do.’ ‘We’re business, we do what we do.’”

Related: Colleges welcome first-year students by getting them thinking about jobs

Geographically huge, but with a comparatively tiny population of people with personal or professional connections — just a small town with very, very long roads, as one government official put it —Montana has managed to bring these groups together in a collaboration among its university system, Department of Labor and Industry, the State Workforce Innovation Board, private colleges and others.

It matched lists of graduates with payroll records to see what jobs they held and how much they were making. Even the self-employed, who are hard to track because they don’t show up in corporate payroll records, were included in the data, thanks to income tax returns provided by the Department of Revenue.

Many states collect this information, according to the National Skills Organization and other groups, which have held up the initiative as a national model. But few use it in the way Montana has, to determine on an institution-by-institution basis what programs should be added, expanded or eliminated by its universities and colleges, and to tell its students where the most in-demand and highest-paying jobs are.

“We’re laying it out: Here’s what we need, here’s what you can earn, here’s what your likely outcome is. You make the call,” said Labor and Industry Commissioner Galen Holenbaugh. “Use this information to help you make your own decision. Whether it’s a business wanting to grow or for a worker: These are the best choices you can make.”

The data show, for instance, that the state was producing too few teaching assistants, paralegals, human resources specialists, dental assistants, lab technologists, purchasing agents, occupational therapists, optometrists, data scientists and veterinarians for the projected need — but too many web developers, civil and mechanical engineers, social workers, teachers, financial managers and physical therapists. State officials said they also found falling demand for workers in the alternative energy sector.

Mark Olson has a bachelor’s and a master’s degree and worked for the federal Bureau of Land Management, but needed to make a career switch when twins came. Data showed him there was more demand for nurses than teachers, so he signed up to become a nurse. Credit: Kristine T. Paulsen for The Hechinger Report

So Montana Tech has added certificate and bachelor’s degree programs in data science. Rocky Mountain College in Billings will add a doctorate in occupational therapy in January. Missoula College has put a moratorium on its energy technology program. (“It’s one of the really, really difficult things as we go through this process,” said Tom Gallagher, associate dean. “It doesn’t necessarily mean that we won’t bring it back out when there’s an opportunity for that.”)

The process also found that some students were spending time and money getting degrees that don’t pay off.

Related: Panicked universities in search of students are adding thousands of new majors

While it identified big shortages in fields such as customer relations and culinary arts, for example, the data also showed that students with associate or bachelor’s degrees in those occupations generally could have earned just as much with only a high school diploma and some work experience. Bachelor’s degree holders in public safety, engineering technologies and allied health could have made more, five years after graduating, with just associate degrees in the same fields.

The largest program at most of the state’s community colleges, general studies, also offered little return — even for students who planned to use it as a first step to a bachelor’s degree; only 40 percent of them, it turned out, ever get one.

Information like that could have helped many of the 18 students in the nursing class at Missoula College, at least seven of whom had already earned bachelor’s degrees and were back at a community college because they couldn’t find jobs they wanted.

One, Mark Olson, has both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree. He worked for the federal Bureau of Land Management as a forester and wildland firefighter, but that was not enough to pay the bills when twins came.

Olson saw the data showing that it was hard to get a teaching job — his other choice — so, at 47, signed up to become a nurse.

When he read up on the program, he said, “The main thing that stuck out to me that I remember is that, upon graduation, like 96 or 98 percent of the nursing school graduates get jobs within the first month.” (The number has ranged between 94 percent and 97 percent over the last three years.)

That kind of information “really does help us to more accurately help and steer our students,” said Dylan Rogness, an advisor at Missoula College. “Are there programs that are in higher demand than what they originally came to school for?”

It also reinforces that not everyone needs to get a bachelor’s degree, Rogness said. Credentials from community colleges like his, he said, citing the state data, lead to jobs that sometimes pay more.

Related: As students return to college, a basic question persists: What are they learning?

“Nationally the reaction to a two-year education is becoming more and more positive, because [graduates] go right into the workforce and they make an impact immediately, rather than someone coming out with a psychology degree and having to go on for a master’s or a doctorate while they work at Subway.”

Morgan Hill drifted through college and the Marine Corps, and “still didn’t know” what she wanted to do for a living, she said. Then she learned about demand for workers in the construction industry, and cashed in her GI Bill benefits to get an associate degree in sustainable construction.

After two years of study, she graduated in the spring and is now “making as much as [someone who attended] a four-year school,” Hill, 26, said cheerfully on a construction site in Missoula. “And we get to work outside all the time instead of sitting in a classroom all day.”

Montana’s use of data to steer graduates into high-demand fields is helping industries like his, says Bill Fritz, operations manager for a construction company. “Trying to find qualified and good people that want to work in the industry is super tough.” Credit: Kristine T. Paulsen for The Hechinger Report

Seeing colleges turn out more graduates who have the skills he needs is encouraging, said Bill Fritz, Hill’s boss and operations manager for the Jackson Contractor Group.

“You can see the demand, the amount of construction that’s going on across the country actually right now, and trying to find qualified and good people that want to work in the industry is super tough,” he said.

He sees other students majoring in subjects that may not lead to jobs in such demand, said Fritz, who got a bachelor’s degree from Montana State University.

“It’s false hope for them. They’re getting degrees in disciplines that no longer exist.”

Construction workers in Missoula start at $22 an hour, Fritz said, and many work while they’re still in school. “They can make money while they learn,” he said, “and when they leave they’re not graduating with $40,000 in debt.”

With unemployment at 3.7 percent nationally, Montana is among several states facing worker shortages. Its Department of Labor and Industry in 2016 forecast 120,000 baby boomer retirements through 2026, and a supply of only half as many workers as will be needed.

Related: More high school grads than ever are going to college, but 1 in 5 will quit

“Right off the bat you have a numbers problem,” said Seth Bodnar, president of the University of Montana and a former General Electric executive who once taught economics.

“Nearly all of the jobs that will be created over the coming decade will require at least some degree of education beyond high school,” Bodnar said. “So it’s very important for the economic growth, the well-being of this state, that we as institutions of higher education understand what are those employer needs.”

Tom Gallagher, associate dean at Missoula College, in the kitchen of the culinary program. Credit: Kristine T. Paulsen for The Hechinger Report

Meanwhile, he said, “It’s fair for [students] to say, ‘Hey, how is this an investment in my future?’ It’s fair of them to say, ‘Hey, how will I pay off my student loans?’ These reports help us to more effectively do that.”

Bodnar’s is among some voices that warn against turning universities into trade schools, however.

“If I’m preparing them only to be vocationally prepared in a skills-centric fashion for the jobs employers say they need right now, I’m doing them a disservice when they’re expecting to come here and be prepared for a 40-year career,” he said.

To plan their offerings, many colleges outside Montana typically rely not on information about their own graduates, but on other sources, including local employer advisory boards. Those boards often benefit the businesses that show up, rather than providing scientific projections of demand, said Kelly Marinelli, a human resources consultant in Colorado.

In general, “We can see across the chasm” between what colleges offer and what employers need, said Andy Hannah, who teaches entrepreneurship and analytics at the University of Pittsburgh College of Business Administration and is CEO of Othot, which helps colleges use information analytics. “But what actually builds that bridge across is data. That’s how you can tell if your program is generating the right kind of workers.”

The next step will be to drill down into what makes a particular graduate successful, “and why they’re getting those jobs,” Hannah said. “And then you can take that data and go out to the rest of the student population and say, ‘Hey if you’re interested in this job, here’s the five things that will improve the probability that you’re going to get it.’ ”

What’s gotten started in Montana, he said, “is a glimpse of what’s to come.”

This story about workforce training was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.

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Jon Marcus writes and edits stories about, and helps plan coverage of, higher education. A former magazine editor, he has written for The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Wired,

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