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Charting a Path Forward Amid Uncertainty: The Pandemic’s Impact on Houston’s Workforce

Published Jun 26, 2020 by Peter Beard

When UpSkill Houston’s executive committee met in early April, the initiative’s partners and stakeholders were addressing the immediate impacts of the “Stay Home, Work Safe” order and the Greater Houston region was in the early days of oil market chaos. During its June meeting, UpSkill Houston’s executive committee focused on Houston’s rebound, reviewing employment and labor market data for the Houston region and wider economic trends and implications of the pandemic on “good jobs” in the region. 

In April, the executive committee focused on key immediate opportunities to support workforce and unemployment, and how different organizations were managing through crisis, such as adapting/pausing CTE programs, ensuring ongoing business operations and supporting employment. There was broad recognition at the time of the societal impact COVID-19 would have on Houston, and the essential needs required by those facing unemployment. Over the last two months, organizations have stabilized and shifted toward a ‘new normal.’ 

Today, UpSkill Houston’s partners and leadership are taking a longer and more informed view of the potential impacts on the Houston economy as a result of the pandemic, oil market crisis, and challenges of institutional racism. These factors only make UpSkill Houston’s role in strengthening the pipeline of skilled workers even more important. Our work has been grounded in the core values of equity, dignity of work, skills-based advancement, and opportunity for all. 

UpSkill Houston’s Vision 2025 focuses on advancing Houstonians along the “Attract-Train-Place” continuum.  This strategy builds on a strong foundation for effectively convening employers to provide overall leadership and requires a deepening of engagement with partners and orchestration for direct impact by documenting and scaling best practices, incorporating data and analytics into decision-making, and driving collective action across the partner base. In light of the pandemic and to support the economic rebound, this work will need to be more agile and bold – particularly in highlighting and building capabilities around the highest-priority jobs and skills.  

A recent UpSkill Works Forum with Parker Harvey, principal economist for the Gulf Coast Workforce Board, provided the most up-to-date employment and labor market information. Harvey shared that there are indications that the regional economy has begun a slow thawing. He shared information about what sectors are experiencing job gains and those that are experiencing job losses. He also reported on regional unemployment data and unemployment insurance claims. Consistent with the executive committee’s review of the April employment data, there is limited information and data to suggest specific actions or responses. 

During the June meeting, UpSkill Houston partners reviewed the unemployment impacts for individuals based on educational attainment. Parker Harvey shared similar data in the recent Forum. The slide below highlights the that individuals with a high school diploma/GED represent the largest group filing for unemployment insurance and that individuals with lower educational attainment are disproportionately impacted relative to individuals with higher levels of education. The executive committee was also concerned about unequal impact on populations in the region, notably that unemployment rates are higher in less affluent counties and cities, and Black and Hispanic Americans are disproportionately affected.   

In late April, UpSkill Houston released its Middle Skills Matter to Greater Houston report providing updated labor market data and projections between 2019 and 2024 and evidenced the importance of and size of the region’s middle-skill workforce. It also highlighted 47 middle-skill occupations in the region that should be considered “good jobs” because they’re in high demand, projected to need a high volume of workers, and pay livable wages that exceed the overall regional median wage of $39,832.

During the meeting, the executive committee examined these occupations in light of likely trends of COVID-19 impact on the regional economy. Currently, UpSkill Houston expects that about 80 percent of these occupations should remain a priority post-COVID, including industrial machinery mechanics, sales representatives, and welders. As the figure below highlights, the dark and light green blocks are occupations that are not likely to have significant impact by COVID in the short term and are expected to have medium to high projected opening as the Houston economy recovers. In contrast, the blocks in light and dark red are at risk and may have projected openings that are lower as the economy recovers.

The executive committee discussed how the crisis has exacerbated existing skills mismatches. While some new job roles have grown out of the pandemic, like contact tracer, the crisis appears to be restricting available job opportunities and impacting training and skills development for unemployed individuals. 

The crisis reinforces the vision set by UpSkill Houston. There is a dire need to build skills in growing, living wage jobs, away from declining sectors and industries. Building existing collaborations and initiating new partnerships amongst various public and private stakeholder groups is critical to ensure investments and initiatives drive the necessary impact in an inclusive manner.

Related Reading:
•    Report: Middle Skills Matter to Greater Houston

Executive Partners