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Higher Education Commissioner: Urgent Action Needed to Address Texas Skills Needs

Published Jun 14, 2022 by Susan Moore

The THECB's new Building a Talent Strong Texas plan takes a market-driven approach to setting educational attainment targets. Watch the full UpSkill Works Forum with Texas Commissioner of Higher Education Dr. Harrison Keller above.

The THECB's new Building a Talent Strong Texas plan takes a market-driven approach to setting educational attainment targets. Watch the full UpSkill Works Forum with Texas Commissioner of Higher Education Dr. Harrison Keller above.

The shift toward an innovation-based, technology-enabled economy has rapidly changed the skills and credentials needed by Texans in the workforce. Many individuals have struggled to keep pace. A new strategic plan outlines how Texas can prepare students and workers for the shift taking place in the state and regional economies – but it will take the combined efforts of employers and educators to focus resources and accelerate the pace of innovation around workforce education. The state’s community colleges have the scale and infrastructure for addressing the skills challenges Texas employers and residents face. 

This is according to Dr. Harrison Keller, commissioner of higher education with the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB), which released its new Building a Talent Strong Texas plan earlier this year. Keller’s comments came during an UpSkill Works forum hosted by the Partnership and its UpSkill Houston initiative held in early June.

Community colleges have the potential to take on large-scale challenges such as the one at hand, but they weren’t designed to meet the urgent needs of the changing economy. The window of opportunity to re-tool and re-envision the types of credentials offered through higher education and the way institutions are organized and engage employers and students is open now, he said.

“This is a time when we need to clear away the regulatory brush. We need to get behind the innovators and we need to commit ourselves to impacting at scale to serve many more people than we ever have served before, to educate many more people to higher standards with higher credentials than we ever have successfully achieved before. That’s what’s going to ensure our competitiveness in the long-term,” he said.

By 2030, more than 60 percent of jobs in the state’s economy are going to require education and skills beyond high school, according to Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. However, the number of Texans with that education has not been keeping pace. According to current data roughly one in four Houston Metro Area adults are high school graduates (or equivalent) but have not attended college. 

Over the last several years, THECB engaged with hundreds of key employers, community leaders, K-12 education leaders, and higher education leaders across Texas in order to learn how best to hedge against the growing disconnect between workforce needs and educational attainment. The result is a strategic, market-driven plan that updates and raises the bar of the state’s 60x30 Texas plan to educate, graduate, and better prepare a broader scope of students and workers to meet the new economy’s current and projected workforce and skill-based demands.

“The Talent Strong Texas plan give us a much clearer vision that’s aligned with what we heard from our employers, what we heard from Texans what they need from our colleges and universities,” Keller said. “Part of what’s ambitious about the Texas plan that you don’t see in any other state right now is this idea that we need a plan that’s market driven.”

Through the new plan, the state:

  • Expands its age target from learners and workers (ages 25 to 34 years old) to include all working-age Texans (ages 25 to 64 years old);
  • Sets a target for 95 percent of students to graduate with no undergraduate or manageable levels of debt; and 
  • Places emphasis on educational attainment beyond traditional degrees – associate degrees, bachelor’s degrees, and master’s degrees – to also include short-term workforce credentials, micro-credentials, and other workforce-aligned, “credentials of value.”

“In this context what we mean [is] of value to individuals if we look at the typical earnings that are associated with those credentials in our Texas labor market, even accounting for the cost of earning those credentials,” Keller said. These credentials must have a currency, too, in that an employer would recognize that the holder possessed specific sets of skills. In this way, they would translate into value for both the holder and an employer. “We would say these credentials are ‘of value’ because Texas employers value them,” he said.

Education institutions across the state will need to leverage data around student progression and industry wages to improve this alignment between educational and workforce needs, he said.

In the plan, the state also sets forth new goals around research, development, and innovation to keep the state competitive and to renew its commitment to equity. Ninety-five percent of the state’s population growth in the last decade was seen in communities of color, yet statewide, Black and Hispanic adults lag far behind white adults in educational attainment. Texas cannot reach its goals if they are not advanced equitably to make sure all residents have the opportunity to participate in, contribute to, and benefit from the state’s economy, he said.

In his remarks, Keller noted the emergence of non-credit workforce programs that are stackable with for-credit and other credentialing programs and acknowledged the importance of education and employers working together to align convertible programs and credentials. 

“That’s really hard work to do well, and it requires close partnership with the employers to understand the career trajectories, to understand with the skills look like. But the payoff for the employers, the payoff for students is really transformative,” Keller said.

Work-based learning, apprenticeship programs, and internships are among the best and most cost-effective ways to ensure this alignment, he said, adding that these opportunities need not be limited to large employers. Effective work-based learning and internship programs require strong engagement and partnership with employers to ensure employers, students, and educational institutions achieve mutual outcomes. 

Keller also touched on the state’s continuing work to improve student advising, the value of dual credit and dual-enrollment programs, and the need to engage students at a younger age to help them advance through their high school requirements and courses that will transfer into any college or university.

Community colleges are in many ways the “safety net” of American higher education, offering a breadth of options for adult learners from English language proficiency to high school completion and equivalency programs, to transfer and continuing education, and workforce programs, he said. Nearly 250,000 Texans have left the educational pipeline either at a K-12 or a higher education level since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Keller believes the vast majority have taken jobs to contribute to the household income – likely low-wage and low-mobility jobs – and will need to turn to community colleges for upskilling support over the next several years.

There is urgency for action and to focus on education resources and policy to meet these challenges head-on, particularly for community colleges.

“That’s the thing that I’m most worried about – that we won’t work like we’re running out of time – because we are,” Keller said.


The Partnership’s UpSkill Houston initiative works to strengthen the talent pipeline employers need to grow their businesses and to help all Houstonians build relevant skills and connect to good careers that increase their economic opportunity and mobility. Learn more.

The UpSkill Houston initiative’s UpSkill Works Forum Series presents conversations with regional business, education and community leaders, policy makers and high-profile thought leaders on the key workforce issues the greater Houston region confronts. See previous forums here.