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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.