Minnesota's ISEEK Combines Job Bank, Career Planning

Every month, the Minnesota Department of Economic Security (MDES) puts out reams of information on unemployment, jobs and industries in the state. And every month, people interested in living, working or going to school in Minnesota begin to search for a job, apply to a college or simply try to map out a career path. But the groups rarely intersected-until now.

MDES "ships up to the federal government the best data on the labor market in the state," said Paul Wasko, education manager for technical initiatives at the Minnesota Office of Technology in St. Paul. "For [predicting the job market] three to five years out, there is a high degree of accuracy." But little was being done in-state with such timely information.

So, early in 1996, several state organizations decided to combine their efforts and build a better job bank, a place where people could apply economic forecasting data to real-world employment and educational opportunities. In the process, they learned several lessons about building coalitions with minimal bureaucracy and maximum impact.

The result of their efforts is ISEEK, the Internet System for Education and Employment Knowledge (www.iseek.org. Launched in April 1998, significantly enhanced in August and slated to be fully completed by January 1999, ISEEK is a partnership between Minnesota state government and higher-education institutions that aims to bring the power of the World Wide Web to bear on the process of career development.

At the heart of the system is a directory of thousands of academic programs from Minnesota public and private colleges, universities and trade schools. Users will be able to cross-pollinate these education options with MDES employment outlook data to plan a future career or search through a list of currently available jobs listed with the MDES. Private-employer positions and listings from major daily newspapers will be added next year. Online tests walk users through the process of assessing their career interests, and financial aid information completes the picture for students worried about college costs.

The result, planners hope, will be an easy-to-use system that gives a personal, accurate picture of employment. Someone interested in the legal profession, for example, will be able to use ISEEK to get a reading on how great the demand for paralegals will be in five years, what courses of study are required and where they're offered in the state, how much such an education will cost, what financial aid is available, what internships are available and how much a paralegal can expect to earn.

"Real information about an industry's projected need has always been so hard to come by," said John Hennen, a career-planning specialist and associate dean of educational services at Anoka-Ramsey Community College, Coon Rapids, Minn. The MDES forecasts are crucial to students making long-term career decisions, but they are equally valuable for current job seekers trying to determine which fields have openings now and are expected to have them in the future.

Although a smorgasbord of state and educational organizations participate in ISEEK-including the Minnesota Department of Children, Families and Learning (CFL), the Office of Technology, the University of Minnesota, the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) organization, the Minnesota Private College Council and the Higher Education Services Office-funding is provided by three key groups: CFL, the University of Minnesota and MnSCU.

Early planners tackled the financial problem by determining about how much money they would need to research and launch the site-$2 million-and getting that sum approved by the Office of Technology. Finally, the planners received funding from the state legislature by having the money allocated in chunks to the most appropriate agencies. CFL won $1 million, for example, and MnSCU and the University of Minnesota each received $500,000.

All three fiscal agents signed a letter of intent to pool the funds and work jointly on ISEEK, but no documents exist to enforce participation. "There's no legal framework-that hasn't been necessary," Wasko said. "It's a cooperative project among people that want it to happen."

The ISEEK steering committee is now considering drafting a joint-powers agreement that would formalize the existing organizational structure among participating groups, Wasko said. At the same time, the committee is debating how best to fund ISEEK in the future: continued state grants; some kind of revenue generation, for example, advertisements or selling the system to other states; or a combination of several plans.

In the meantime, day-to-day operation of the site is divided according to each agency's talents. "The work is spread out among the partners," explained Daniel Wagner, ISEEK project director and a director with CFL. Just as each contributed funding, "each needs to have revenue and activities," he said.

As project director, Wagner brings to the table his extensive background in higher education as well as his current specialty, K-12 education. MDES contributes job information and projections and the university's "mega-resources," as Wagner calls them, take care of connectivity for the site, which already houses some 130,000 screens, with 1 million screens expected when the project is completely operational.

Site design is handled by Barr Engineering Co., Bloomington, Minn., which was awarded a contract in late 1997.

In keeping with the collaborative nature of the data, the entire project is directed by a steering committee, which meets twice monthly, and by subcommittees on design and implementation, customer needs and marketing. Barr maintains a separate Web site that allows dispersed subcommittee members to share information, check meeting dates and otherwise stay informed.

Content flows into ISEEK through a staff worker who is stationed at the University of Minnesota, but that traffic pattern won't be able to withstand the onslaught as more and more content-particularly from educational institutions-is added to the system, according to Wagner. So in January, a new system will take over, whereby institutions will add their own data to templates distributed by ISEEK, with project workers looking over pages once they're posted to make sure they conform to site standards.

Developers have identified several potential types of users for ISEEK: high school students who are as-yet undecided on higher education or career choice; university students trying to select a course of study or to get a job after graduation; employers looking for workers; unemployed adults looking to change careers, find training or a job; career counselors; and policy makers.

Catering to such a large and diverse group is a challenge, Wagner admits, adding that managers are discussing the idea of building different "portals" into the system to accommodate different users. More immediately, ISEEK developers have turned to the university's usability labs to ensure the system is effective as well as easy to use. In fact, Wagner said, 3 percent of the budget goes toward usability testing, with another 6 percent earmarked for ongoing customer research to make sure the system is meeting customers' needs.

Anoka-Ramsey's Hennen admits that such an application might tend to skew toward a younger clientele that has a higher degree of Internet savvy and simpler job demands. Nevertheless, he thinks ISEEK is on target to meet its goals of inclusion. "It's designed well enough to accommodate high school students through midcareer job changes," Hennen said. And when it comes to jobs, it's still early in the rollout, he said, but "so far, there's a good balance of disciplines. Everything I've looked for, I've found."

Tracy Mayor is a Beverly, Mass.-based free-lance writer. She can be reached at tmayor@shore.net.

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