Published Sep 20, 2021 by Susan Moore
Eighteen months ago, record job losses were recorded across the Houston region. Nationally, unemployment due to the effects of COVID-19 in 2020 disproportionately affected communities of color, women, and workers with a high school diploma or who had attended some college or held an associate level degree. As of this summer, roughly 58 percent of jobs lost in March and April 2020 in Houston have been regained.
During the Partnership’s September Education & Workforce Council, Peter Beard, Partnership senior vice president of Regional Workforce Development, Jose Beceiro, Partnership senior director of Global Energy 2.0, and Dr. Allatia Harris, vice chancellor of Strategic Initiatives at San Jacinto College, shared initiatives underway that support inclusive job recovery and workforce development, and the transition of oil and gas workers to new, Energy 2.0 roles in the wake of the pandemic and changing energy market.
Getting Houston Back on Track
Beard discussed the Partnership’s work with employers, nonprofit partners in United Way of Greater Houston’s THRIVE network and others, and community colleges to develop the new job recovery initiative Houston Back on Track. This initiative connects workers displaced by the pandemic to coaching support, wraparound services, and short-term education they may need to help them get to the ‘front door’ of companies with good opportunities for long-term employment in in-demand roles. At present, employment areas comprise of healthcare, transportation and warehousing, and customer service and support, including for information technology areas and within Energy 2.0 companies. The initiative is seeking additional employment partners.
“We have a huge opportunity in Houston to come together and work with our neighbors and with our education and community partners to create pipelines into the roles that our employers need to have filled,” Beard said.
Leveraging a Strong Energy Workforce
Despite the pandemic and a downturn in the energy market, Houston remains a vibrant, global, and leading energy economy, and Beceiro shared how the Partnership and the region have been able to leverage its energy workforce to attract Energy 2.0 companies.
“We're seeing a trend now of non-traditional or new energy tech projects and companies finding a home in Houston to take advantage of the energy talent that we have,” he said.
Houston and the Partnership have recently recruited energy transition incubators and companies, such as Greentown Labs and Unity Global, attracted to the region due to its tech and energy talent. Displaced oil and gas workers are finding new opportunities within new, rapidly growing energy sectors including hydrogen, carbon capture and storage, and renewable energy areas including solar, wind, and battery energy storage, he said noting how skill sets could transfer from one industry to another. Cloud service providers have recently sought talent from Houston’s oil and gas sector, too, he said.
Building Talent for the Future
San Jacinto College recognized that its students were facing more challenges, from funding and childcare needs to food insecurities; Harris described how the college helped meet those needs through a variety of initiatives and funding opportunities including the 21Forward Scholarship, the Promise @ San Jac program, grants for childcare assistance, and a fast track tuition discount for credit and non-credit programs that prepare students for in-demand careers.
Harris noted an uptick in workforce program enrollments and an unprecedented, 60 percent increase in enrollment for college preparation and development courses such as reading and writing, developmental math, and college readiness. She hypothesized that the change was related to the shift from traditional classroom settings to online or non-traditional settings in high schools.
“We’re just going to have to work harder to find the ways to build those basic literacy skills so that the students can master the other skills that prepare them to be what our employers need them to be,” she said.
Seeking and Retaining a Skilled Workforce
Employers increasingly need a workforce with digital skills, who can manage spreadsheets and customer relationship management systems, and are proficient in business management programs and software. They also understand that employees can learn various technical skills on the job, so they’re seeking talent with the soft skills that show that they can learn and grow, Beard said. He pointed to a trend of employers investing into talent in new ways, like through tuition benefits to support learning and growth that make employees more versatile and that, in turn, help with retention. Beceiro added that employers see how a good quality of life plays into recruiting and keeping talent.
San Jacinto’s students represent the future workforce. They’re eager to learn and can learn but, Harris said, like the workforce across various age groups, they need confidence that things will be okay and they need support.
“The future is bright, but there’s a lot of work and a lot of caring [needed] for us to get there,” she said.