OECD/WSAC Project on the Labor Market Relevance and Outcomes of Higher Education

Publish Date
September 4, 2019

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is currently conducting a multinational study with the primary goals of (1) assessing the performance of higher education systems in developing graduates with relevant, durable, and transferable skills that are understood and trusted by employers, and (2) identifying policy choices for governments that can improve the capacity of their higher education systems to anticipate, develop, and clearly signal market relevant skills. The U.S. segment of the study is supported by funding from the Lumina Foundation. Washington was selected as one of the states representing the U.S., along with Virginia, Ohio, and Texas. The Washington Student Achievement Council (WSAC), as the state partner, has been collaborating closely with the OECD team on research activities in the state. 

About the OECD and WSAC

The OECD, headquartered in Paris, France, is an international organization of 36 member countries in Europe, East Asia, and the Americas, including the United States. Its mission is to promote policies to improve the economic and social well-being of people in its member countries. The OECD does this by providing a forum in which senior officials from member countries meet to explore shared concerns, discuss good practices, and seek solutions to common problems. The OECD Directorate for Education and Skills provides evidence and policy advice to member governments that draw upon its international network of education statistics, large-scale surveys, and assessments it has developed in collaboration with national authorities, as well as in-depth reviews of national government policies and educational practices.

WSAC is a nine-member council appointed by the governor of Washington and supported by a cabinet-level state agency. The council provides strategic planning, oversight, advocacy, program administration, and policy research and analysis to promote increased student success and higher levels of educational attainment in Washington.

Aims of the study

Across the OECD, higher education institutions aim to cultivate in their graduates the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in the labor market, and many higher education graduates do achieve rewarding and well-paid careers. However, worrying numbers of graduates have difficulty obtaining jobs that correspond with their academic training and qualifications, and others are employed performing tasks that do not draw upon graduate-level skills. Where graduates borrow to finance their studies, some struggle to service the debt they have taken on. In some higher education systems, graduates frequently decide they must resume education and training to seek qualifications better suited to labor market demands than those they initially obtained. In virtually all higher education systems, educators and administrators are struggling to anticipate and understand the future of work, and to grasp what this implies for what and how they teach and the skills their graduates should possess.

Employers, for their part, often report that it is difficult to find suitable numbers of graduates prepared to enter high-demand professions and emerging occupations, or graduates with socio-emotional skills that complement their specialist knowledge.

The OECD’s multiyear project on the labor market relevance and outcomes of higher education aims to help governments to:

  • Assess the performance of higher education systems in developing graduates with relevant, durable, and transferable skills that are understood and trusted by labor market actors;
  • Diagnose the difficulties higher education systems face in developing and signaling skills; and
  • Identify policy choices for governments that can improve the capacity of their higher education systems to anticipate, develop, and signal market relevant skills.

The Research Approach

Phase 1: Review of state data trends, policy and planning documents, research reports, and policy analyses. From December 2018 to April 2019, the WSAC team collaborated closely with OECD researchers to:

  • Develop a broad overview of Washington’s state higher education governance structure and the relationships among various relevant state agencies and community, business, industry, and non-profit organization partners.
  • Understand the full range of policy and planning efforts by Washington state agencies to align the higher education system with state workforce needs and to connect students and working adults with relevant career education and training.
  • Identify key research reports and policy analyses to illuminate data trends related to the labor market outcomes of Washington’s higher education system.

Phase 2: Stakeholder interviews and policy workshop. From April 29 to May 7, 2019, the OECD team visited the state of Washington to conduct a series of interviews and a policy workshop with key stakeholders to gain a range of different perspectives on issues highlighted in reports. The WSAC research team identified key stakeholders and coordinated the scheduling of interviews in different regions of the state. 

Stakeholder Interviews included legislators, state-level public officials, higher education leaders and staff, employers, industry and labor, and nonprofit organizations. Discussions during the interviews were structured but were generally free-flowing and flexible, allowing the participants to focus on topics they thought were key to the issue or ones that had not received as much attention as they warrant. 

Discussion questions ranged from broad-based to more specific, depending on what sector the participants were representing. For example, all participants were asked to consider the broad-based questions:

  • From your perspective, what is the experience of recent higher education graduates when they enter and begin to progress in the labor market?
  • What are the main factors driving these labor market outcomes?

Participants were also asked to consider questions focused on issues relevant to the sectors they represent. For example:

  • Legislators and state-level agency officials were asked to consider whether there are processes that support or hinder the ability of state higher education policymakers to take into account labor market relevance in their work.
  • Higher education institutional leaders were asked to consider what practices their campuses have developed or planned to foster labor market relevant skills.

The Policy Workshop was held on May 7, 2019. The WSAC team identified participants for the workshop and coordinated the meeting arrangements. The workshop discussions were facilitated by the OECD team. A diverse group of stakeholders were invited, including state-level policymakers and agencies, higher education leaders, and representatives from business, labor, regional workforce and economic development, and non-profit organizations. The workshop was organized around small group discussions among stakeholders with report outs. Key topics included identifying:

  • Key challenges in Washington affecting student labor market outcomes and the alignment of higher education with evolving workforce demands and opportunities.
  • Policy options for performance improvement, focusing on concrete actions that can be prioritized on the basis of their potential impact and feasibility.
  • The different roles that stakeholder groups play in developing and implementing these actions, including how state-level policymakers can support, facilitate, or coordinate these actions.

Phase 3: Preparation of Report. The Washington state report will be incorporated into a U.S. report, including findings and recommendations for the four states participating in the study. The U.S. report is planned to be completed in the spring of 2020.

U.S. findings will then be used to inform a subsequent international report, which will draw comparative analyses and policy advice across OECD member countries participating in the labor market relevance and outcomes project.

OECD Washington Review Team

Patricia Mangeol is an analyst at the OECD and the project lead for the review of labor market relevance and outcomes of higher education in the United States. A native of France, Patricia has worked for many years in higher education and employment policy in Canada and earned an MA/MSc degree in political science and international relations from the University of Toronto.

Monica Hanssen is an analyst at the OECD, with a background in research and analysis across multiple policy areas. A native of Norway, Monica lived in the United States for many years and took her MPP degree at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

Thomas Weko supports the project as the head of the higher education policy team at the OECD. Previously, Thomas was the associate commissioner at the National Center for Education Statistics. Thomas is a U.S. national and earned a Ph.D. in political science and government from the University of Minnesota.


Isaac Kwakye is director of research at the Washington Student Achievement Council. He has conducted research in many different policy areas, including education, welfare/income assistance, and health initiatives in Canada and the United States. He has a master’s degree in applied economics, an MBA, and a Bachelor of Science degree in mathematics.

Daryl Monear is associate director of research at the Washington Student Achievement Council, focusing on education policy and workforce alignment issues. He has a Ph.D. in educational leadership and policy studies from the University of Washington.