Labor Insight Case Study: Northern Illinois University | Burning Glass Technologies

Preparing for Success:

Northern Illinois University Graduate Students Use Real-Time Jobs Data to Launch their Careers

The Clients 

Northern Illinois University, an institution with 19,000 students, offers over 80 different advanced graduate degrees to 5,000 graduate students. As NIU sought to help graduate students clarify and pursue their professional aspirations,  two seasoned educators – Professor Gary Baker, a chemist and biochemist, and Professor Elizabeth Wilkins, a scholar of education – stepped up and became co-directors in creating the Graduate Career and Professional Development Office. Their goal was to make the work of their new office stand out in the field. From the beginning,  Baker said, “We had a philosophy: to be on the leading edge, rather than to follow what others were doing.”  So they set out to help graduate students improve their hiring potential through more engaging, labor-aligned courses and guide them through their career pathways. 

The Challenge

Baker and Wilkins found that few graduate students were actively engaged in learning about their prospective career options or tailoring their learning  plans to acquire the specific skills they would need to ensure their success in the labor market, and few graduate programs  did any  rigorous tracking of the career paths of their graduates: In short, there was very little market research underway. 

Wilkins and Baker looked for ways to engage students in fashioning a pathway to their goals, rather than just letting things unfold. They created workshops and online tools for self-assessment and professional development planning, however, they still felt their students were working in a vacuum. Without labor market jobs data and information on in-demand skills, neither faculty nor students were prepared to meet their goals.  

 “Universities are relying on anecdotal and survey data when they could be using large data and analytics to drive their urgent decisions.  As a sector, we know we need to change.  I cannot think of a better partner for higher education than Burning Glass.”   

Elizabeth Wilkins

Co-Director, Graduate Career and Professional Development Office, NIU

The Solution

Baker and Wilkins realized that the Burning Glass labor market data analysis offered the missing pieces they needed: if students could learn about their options and zero in on the specific jobs they wanted, they could plan to acquire the skills needed to land that job. They signed up for the use of Burning Glass’s Program Insight™ and Labor Insight™ software.

They quickly developed new graduate courses to challenge students, using Burning Glass data, to develop their individual plan. These courses involved tracking and reflecting on skills, planning professional development, developing a LinkedIn profile, connecting with alumni, and focused on developing a job market plan. Wilkins worked to equip students to present themselves effectively to prospective employers and Baker created an online platform using Burning Glass data and served as the principal vehicle for these graduate courses.

“When Burning Glass introduced the new job specializations and the new taxonomy of skills, the interest of graduate students shot up,” said Baker.  Seeing skills ranked and sorted in these ways had a galvanizing effect on students planning for their own learning and skill development.

Once they were able to see the relationship between a set of skills and a given job, they could understand the relative importance of those skills, critically assess their current graduate school coursework, and adjust as needed.  It is now commonplace for NIU graduate students to study their options, realize their need for a skill, and seek a way to develop that skill.

NIU’s Graduate Career and Professional Development Office has noticed several initial effects of its collaboration with Burning Glass:


  • An overall surge in student activity and ownership of the career process
  • Steep improvement in student and faculty knowledge of the local labor market
  • Increased levels of student satisfaction with NIU’s career support
  • An increase in the engagement of job recruiters with students participating in the program
  • Participating graduate students created higher quality resumes, featuring more relevant skills, experiences, successes, and making more effective cases for the contributions that the student offers
  • NIU used Burning Glass data to launch new programs and adjust existing programs based on the labor market data



Lessons for Future Work

Several lessons emerge from the collaboration between Northern Illinois University and Burning Glass.

  • Build student ownership of their learning,
  • Focus on a learning pathway,
  • Build your institution’s capacity to use labor market data analytics,
  • Move beyond the early adopters, to include the full array of students,
  • Foster faculty innovation and entrepreneurialism,
  • Lead from the top.

The university’s commitment to a new approach to graduate student planning, ongoing learning, and career coaching, and its willingness to partner with Burning Glass to build on that exploration, lies at the heart of the successes that followed. “Academia is often its own worst enemy,” said Wilkins. “Universities are relying on anecdotal and survey data when they could be using large data and analytics to drive their urgent decisions. As a sector, we know we need to change.  I cannot think of a better partner for higher education than Burning Glass.”

Working with Burning Glass data effects students in a very special way.  Now, each student is a much more informed consumer:  they are looking for skills they can build, they are thinking in new ways, and they are so excited.  When you marry this labor market data work to career education and the support that we can give, it is life changing,

Elizabeth Wilkins

Co-Director, Graduate Career and Professional Development Office, NIU

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