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7 Key Takeaways from 2019 UpSkill Works Conference

Published Jun 26, 2019 by Tess Cook

Upskill Works Beth Coburn
UpSkill Chair Dan Gilbane conducts keynote conversation with Skillful's Beth Coburn

Thanks to population growth and industry diversity, Houston led the nation in job growth last year. But to support that continued growth, the region must have a balanced labor economy made up of jobs at all skill levels. 

Improving pathways to middle skills jobs was at the heart of the discussion during the second annual UpSkill Works conference this week. The event put on by the Greater Houston Partnership’s UpSkill Houston initiative highlighted the momentum UpSkill has built over the last five years in connecting employers, education programs and would-be employees. 

Speakers included Mike Lewis, Partner with Boston Consulting Group; Ryan Helwig, principal of TEConomy Partners and Beth Cobert, CEO of the Skillful Initiative at the Markle Foundation among others. Here are a few of the key takeaways from the conference. 

Solving for a Strong Labor Market 

People are the backbone of our regional economy and if we’re not helping set them up for success, we aren’t helping set up our economy for success, said TEConomy Partners Principal Ryan Helwig. More fundamentally, we aren’t helping families succeed in our region. Approximately 40% of the existing workforce does not possess the education and skills necessary to fill middle skills jobs. Complicating things further is the fact that skills are becoming obsolete more quickly, requiring more frequent training. 

Sectors of Opportunity 

Greater Houston experienced a doubling of middle skill jobs between 2010 and 2018. Today, there are roughly 921,000 entry and advanced middle skills jobs across the region. That’s approximately 30% of the region’s total jobs, slightly higher than the 28% these jobs make up nationally. According to TEConomy’s Helwig, four major areas stand out with especially strong middle skills demand include: technicians and drafters, extraction, transport/material moving and construction. 

The Obstacles 

The top 3 obstacles workers cite as preventing them from taking action on upskilling themselves: the unaffordable immediate costs, the negative effect on wages, and no time to invest, according to findings from Boston Consulting Group.  

The Digitization Effect  

Digitization is increasingly affecting middle skill jobs. 82% of all middle skill job postings today require digital skills, said Boston Consulting Group’s Mike Lewis. That will jump to 86% by 2025. Some jobs will disappear, but new jobs will reappear. Tech changes every job, and if we don’t think proactively about this transition it will be a terrible waste of personal talent and a waste to the companies that helped build those skills.

Partnerships are Essential

Community colleges locally express no concern with student interest in middle skills opportunities. In fact, San Jacinto’s dual-credit pipe-fitting program has doubled in size. The real barrier is finding an electrician to leave the field during the day to teach a dual-credit program. Other local community colleges have tackled this problem by partnering with employers who need help sourcing this talent and can use the dual-credit program to find qualified applicants to hire right out of high school. As an example, Houston Community College is deploying this model with a foreman program. 

Consider Hiring for Skills Over Credentials 

What is a skill? It’s what a person can do today or learn to do in the future. Oftentimes skills are acquired outside of the work context. A person who is active in planning community events as a volunteer during personal time may be great at project management. A mechanic may have a similar understanding of hydraulics as a mechanical engineer. Because skills sometimes are just as critical as credentials, job descriptions written based on skills plus on-the-spot assessments are the best way to test your candidates’ abilities, said Cobert from Skillful.  Research proves that skills matter, sometimes more than credentials, and she encourages employers to give it a try.

Mitigating Automation Risk

Middle skills occupations in services and healthcare, as well as sales occupations, have a more secure outlook according to national consultant firm TEConomy. Investing in training employees in those segments is encouraged. On the contrary, large employment segments in construction and production are at risk of automation. If and when these positions become automated, they will still require a human touch. These occupations are in need an upskilling path to help employees transition, and human resources managers need to explore the next step for their employer and employees.

Conference presentations: 
UpSkill Impact and Scale
Greater Houston Regional Workforce and Market Trends
United Way THRIVE and BakerRipley ASPIRE programs

And learn more about UpSkill Houston and the region's broader Workforce Development efforts. 

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