Information about the characteristics of jobs and the individuals who fill them is valuable for career guidance, reemployment counseling, workforce development, human resource management, and other purposes. To meet these needs, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) in 1998 launched the Occupational Information Network (O*NET), which consists of a content model—a framework for organizing occupational data—and an electronic database.
The O*NET content model includes hundreds of descriptors of work and workers organized into domains, such as skills, knowledge, and work activities. Data are collected using a classification system that organizes job titles into 1,102 occupations. The National Center for O*NET Development (the O*NET Center) continually collects data related to these occupations.
In 2008, DOL requested the National Academies to convene an expert panel to review O*NET and consider its future directions. The panel was asked to inventory and evaluate the uses of O*NET; to explore the linkage of O*NET with the Standard Occupational Classification System and other data sets; and to identify ways to improve O*NET, particularly in the areas of cost-effectiveness, efficiency, and currency.
Based on its review of the evidence, the panel reached the overarching conclusion that O*NET is used and useful.
Conclusion: The Department of Labor has demonstrated the value and usefulness of a publicly funded, nationally representative database of occupational information through its wide usage. An array
of individuals and organizations relies on O*NET data to inform important activities in workforce development, economic development, career development, academic and policy research, and human resource management.
The panel’s other conclusions and recommendations fall into two broad categories, reflecting the two goals of O*NET: (1) developing and maintaining a high-quality database and (2) enhancing service to users. Primary conclusions and recommendations in each category are presented here; more detailed conclusions and recommendations appear in the individual chapters of the report. All recommendations are summarized and presented in order of importance in Chapter 10.
MAINTAINING A HIGH-QUALITY DATABASE
Conclusion: Over the past 10 years, DOL has achieved its initial goal of populating O*NET with information from job incumbents and occupational analysts, replacing earlier data based on the Dictionary of Occupational Titles. However, short-term policy agendas related to workforce development have at times reduced focus on the core activities of developing, maintaining, and updating a high-quality database.
Recommendation: The Department of Labor should focus O*NET resources on the core functions of collecting, maintaining, and publishing high-quality data, leaving development of most new applications and tools to the private sector, state and local governments, and educational institutions.
This focus on data quality will involve complex trade-offs between costs and benefits now and in the future. Maintaining continuity in the content model has supported the growing use of O*NET data for many valuable purposes. Nevertheless, weaknesses in the content model and other O*NET elements warrant targeted research investments that may lead to modifications with potential to reduce data collection costs, improve data quality, and enhance service to users.
Conclusion: The construct validity of the taxonomies of descriptors varies across the different domains included in the content model. In the abilities domain, the descriptors reflect a long history of psychological research on the nature and measurement of human abilities, but many of the descriptors in the skills domain lack such an extensive research base.
Conclusion: To gather information for most content model domains, the O*NET Center employs a multimethod sampling approach, in which respondents for approximately 75 percent of the occupations are identified through probability-based sampling, and respondents for 25 percent of the occupations are identified by other, less scientifically rigorous methodologies. Trained occupational analysts provide information for the abilities and skills domains. Taken together, these methods yield O*NET data derived from different types of data providers (occupational analysts, job incumbents, occupational experts) who may or may not represent the work performed in that occupation. The impact this has on measurement error is unclear, because each type of respondent introduces a different source of error.
Recommendation: The Department of Labor should establish and support an external technical advisory board, comprised of senior scientists, to develop a research agenda for O*NET that will prioritize research suggestions from its members, the department, the O*NET Center, the user advisory board recommended below, and other sources. At a minimum, it should meet twice yearly, once to establish research priorities for the coming year and develop requests for proposals reflecting these priorities and once to review and rank proposals submitted by academic researchers or contractors.
ENHANCING SERVICE TO O*NET USERS
Conclusion: The full potential of O*NET has not been realized, partly because of a lack of effective, ongoing communication and feedback between the O*NET Center and current and potential users. As a result, the O*NET Center has an incomplete understanding of user needs, resulting in development of an O*NET that is not fully aligned with these needs and marketing activities that do not explain all its potential uses.
Recommendation: The Department of Labor should establish and staff an ongoing, external user advisory board, including at least one representative of each major user group, as well as representatives of potential users in the U.S. military and in K-12 and higher education. The board should meet regularly to provide advice and recommendations to the Department of Labor regarding processes for identifying users’ evolving needs and communicating information about O*NET and its uses. New marketing and educational strategies must be aligned with the reality that, for many users, O*NET provides building blocks
(rather than ready-made solutions or final answers) toward more complete solutions.
The Department of Labor should not wait to initiate the research and development recommendations of this report until the technical advisory board and user advisory boards have been constituted and are fully functioning, but should proceed with continuous improvement initiatives using its traditional advisers until these boards can be established. The department should also establish mechanisms for ongoing communication between the user advisory board and the technical advisory board we recommend.