At the height of the pandemic, more than two million Americans were filing for unemployment each week. And many more workers were trying to understand what jobs were available in a rapidly changing market. If they searched online or even made their way to a federally supported American Job Center, they wouldn’t have gotten clear answers to basic questions like: What jobs are stable or surging in demand in my area? Do I have the skills required to fill them? And if not, what education programs might actually lead to a good, stable job?
Employers and state and federal policy makers were similarly stymied, struggling to find the kind of real-time information that would allow them to direct pandemic relief funds and other support to the workers and industries most in need.
“The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the labor market brought the inadequacy of almost all of the states’ data and technology infrastructure into stark relief,” says Robert Asaro-Angelo, commissioner of the N.J. Department of Labor and Workforce Development.
“We simply were not prepared to respond to a crisis of that magnitude in terms of technological capacity or the relative dearth of information about conditions on the ground.”Robert Asaro-Angelo, N.J. labor and workforce commissioner
At the same time, however, companies of all sizes were busy filing dozens or even hundreds of reports on jobs and employment data with state and federal agencies, just like they do each and every year. Fortune 500 companies and others with employees in multiple states and territories face a particularly onerous reporting burden. To keep up costs millions in staff time, management, and legal review every year—and yet all that reporting still isn’t giving Americans, from job seekers to policy makers, a clear picture of what’s going on in the labor market.
In short: There’s a lack of usable information on one hand, but a sea of reporting requirements on the other. That’s an enormous problem in a crisis, and a big one even in good times.
“We cannot afford to wait for the next crisis to improve our systems,” Asaro-Angelo says.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation and its partners, including Asaro-Angelo’s department in New Jersey, are betting that the solution is to find the signal in the noise. To do that requires not more data, necessarily, but better data. Standardized data.
“We have standards for a lot of things, like electrical grids and plumbing, and more and more people are realizing that data standards make sense because our data infrastructure is as important to us as this other infrastructure,” says Erica Groshen, former commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and now senior economics adviser at the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation is now more than five years into an initiative—the Jobs and Employment Data Exchange (JEDx)—promoting the creation and widespread adoption of standards for jobs and employment records. It’s an ambitious effort with the overarching goal of streamlining data collection and improving the quality and timeliness of the information. Within that are three main areas of focus:
- Reducing federal and state reporting costs for employers and government agencies.
- Providing better data for public and private workforce analytics and program applications.
- Ensuring that employers and HR service providers make job descriptions and career pathways more consistent, improve the searchability of job postings, and provide worker-learners with meaningful access to their own employment records.
“It’s a triple win—for employers, the government, and, most important, learners and workers,” says Jason A. Tyszko, vice president of the Center for Education and Workforce at the U.S. Chamber Foundation. “Everybody benefits if we can make the labor market more efficient and effective and easier to navigate.”
Timely and urgent
To achieve those ends, JEDx wants to be a part of broader policy discussions around labor market data, employment records, and mobility. Imagine, for example, if the country didn’t have to rely on 53 different ways—one for each state and territory—of reporting new hire and unemployment insurance data. What if, instead, companies reported one comprehensive jobs and employment record that could be used for a host of different purposes?
Public and private partners in New Jersey, California, Texas, and several other states have already gone through a design phase that has prepared them to test out a prototype data system this year. A series of pilots in the coming year will test the potential of a single, more comprehensive job and employment record to meet multiple federal and state reporting requirements.
This comes at a time when many states are already looking to improve their unemployment insurance and other data systems, an ongoing process that, as Asaro-Angelo says, was made more urgent by the pandemic. When states were hit with a flood of claims, already-outdated verification processes and data systems quickly became overwhelmed. People were forced to wait months for much-needed benefits, and fraud increased dramatically.
- All told, agencies likely paid out more than $60 billion in fraudulent unemployment insurance benefits during the pandemic, according to a report released this month by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
Standardized and better integrated data could have made a big difference in reducing fraud and overpayment, Groshen says. Just as important, better data would have allowed administrators and policy makers to be more targeted with relief and to connect people to available jobs or education opportunities that had the potential to get them back to work quickly.
“A lot of the lessons learned point to, ‘Gee, if we’d had better data, we could have been more targeted and prevented some of the abuses in real time,’” she says. “That’s not an argument for inaction in a crisis—but it is an argument for action when you’re not in a crisis. You need a data infrastructure in place beforehand.”
JEDx poised to lead
In many ways, both Groshen and Asaro-Angelo say, JEDx is positioned to lead those discussions.
For one, it’s already years into working with employers, data system vendors, state and federal agencies, education systems, and economic researchers to develop standards around skills, employment, and earnings.
The U.S. Chamber Foundation’s work began in earnest in 2017, with a major research project looking at how to better manage the country’s talent pipeline. The findings, captured in the report “Clearer Signals,” led to the creation of two initiatives:
- The first focused on working with employers and technology partners to create standards for job descriptions and HR data.
- The second brought employers, government agencies, K-12, and higher education systems together to begin developing standards that could be used to create unified learning and employment records, or LERs.
In 2021, the two threads of work were combined into JEDx, which worked with national partners and seven state partners on an intensive design phase for about 18 months. That work was completed in November, and the effort is now moving into a pilot phase. In other words, a lot of the spadework is already done.
Additionally, an initiative led by the private sector comes with built-in trust from employers, which will be essential for making any standardization effort work. That’s a big part of what drew New Jersey to participate, says Asaro-Angelo.
“Businesses are a great deal more likely to come to the table to identify what will work for them if the invitation comes from the private sector,” he says. “This isn’t to say that public-private partnerships are problematic, just that there is a common—although in my view not wholly accurate—perception that government places burdens on firms through regulation, enforcement, and red tape.”
Indeed, in a recent survey run by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), employers were intrigued by the value proposition of standardized data, particularly its potential to reduce costs and the burden of reporting. However, many wanted more information about the burden of implementation, and some had concerns about new mandates.
JEDx is designed to avoid that by building in incentives for businesses to participate voluntarily. In fact, the dominant selling point is that the JEDx standards would make it much easier for businesses to securely organize, share, and report data that is already required to comply with federal and state regulations. The carrot is increased security, efficiency, and cost savings.
- Indeed, in the recent SHRM survey, which focused on JEDx’s value proposition, 69% of company representatives surveyed said they believed the initiative would be highly valuable to their organization.
- The No. 1 reason was enhanced data security, followed closely by increased transparency and cost savings. Another bonus is that the JEDx standards would also make the data businesses must report more useful for benchmarking and business analysis.
An approach that comes out of the private sector and has built-in incentives for business is far more likely to succeed than one that rests on requirements alone. Government agencies, including the Bureau of Labor Statistics, have certainly talked to industry groups as part of their data-planning processes in the past, Groshen says, but there hasn’t been a concerted effort to bring all the key stakeholders to the same table.
“One of the big questions has always been are businesses going to be willing and able to go along?” she says.
JEDx, Groshen says, is showing that they are in fact willing. “But there’s got to be some sort of incentive for industry in it and for them to be confident this isn’t a Trojan horse.”
Already, JEDx is moving from design to reality. As pilot projects get going this spring, the U.S. Chamber foundation is working to bring in more partners, from employers to government agencies, who are interested in adopting the JEDx data and technology standards. As part of that, leaders hope to bring JEDx into more policy discussions—at both the state and federal level—around upgrading the unemployment insurance system and the nation’s overall data infrastructure.
New Jersey is eager to see more states join, Asaro-Angelo says, and to learn from what others bring to the table. The next phase will be a critical proof of concept, he and leaders at the U.S. Chamber Foundation say.
“This idea is big, bold—and feasible,” says Tyszko.
“If we can build the Hoover Dam, put a person on the moon, and create the internet, we can build data infrastructure like JEDx. But we’ve got to get on the same page and agree to do it.”Jason Tyszko, vice president of the Center for Education and Workforce at the U.S. Chamber Foundation.
The table is set, Tyszko says, and JEDx is ready for more partners to pull up a chair and join the discussion.
This content was paid for by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation. It was written by the Work Shift content studio and does not necessarily reflect the views of our editorial team. Learn more about paid content.