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Higher Education Gains from its Role in the UpSkill Houston Collaboration

Published Aug 21, 2019 by Peter Beard

Brenda Hellyer
Brenda Hellyer, Chancellor, San Jacinto College

Peter Beard, the Greater Houston Partnership’s senior vice president for Regional Workforce Development, leads the Partnership’s UpSkill Houston initiative. Beard recently hosted a roundtable of representatives from the various sectors participating in UpSkill Houston – industry, K-12, higher education, and community development. Dr. Brenda Hellyer, chancellor of San Jacinto College, participated in the roundtable, and her comments are excerpted below.  

Peter Beard: What are the unique benefits for higher education of working in collaboration with employers, K-12 educators, and community development leaders? 

Brenda Hellyer: From a higher ed standpoint, we’ve had advisory committees of industry leaders before, but this takes that work to a different level. With UpSkill Houston, we’ve said we want to hear the good, the bad, and the ugly. We want to know if our programs meet the needs of industry. And, if not, we want to know how we can fix them. Having the CEOs and our K-12 partners at the table with us for those conversations and to discuss how we align all of our work has taken our collaboration and program development to a whole new level. 

In this Gulf Coast region, there are nine community college systems. UpSkill Houston has brought us all together. You have the nine community colleges working with K-12, working with business and industry partners. In addition, you have BakerRipley and other nonprofits in the room. Our students need support. So, at the table, we’re not only planning to provide them with workforce training but also to give them support these nonprofits can offer. 

How has San Jacinto College benefitted from having industry leaders at the table, taking the lead in a collaboration? 

At San Jacinto College, it’s been important for us to be able to hear from industry and to get our arms around what’s needed from the supply and demand sides. UpSkill Houston has helped manage the process. That knowledge is helping us prepare adequately for the future. For instance, our Center for Petrochemical, Energy, and Technology is being built because of what we heard from industry. Also, it’s helpful to understand how industry sees jobs changing in the future. That’s been really important work for us in preparation for our next facility and next growth for the college. 

What have higher ed leaders helped employers understand through these conversations? 

The UpSkill Houston process also enables higher education leaders to say, “This is what I need.” For example, I need internships at petrochemical facilities for students who haven’t been to a plant or a construction site before. The students need to see those facilities not after they graduate, but now. Our industry partners have responded, “We can host this number of students or even bring in your faculty.” The opportunity for faculty to go back into the field and see what’s changed and then make adjustments in their classrooms is invaluable. Having action in both directions has been critical. 

Are there any intangible benefits that come from collaboration and new partnerships?  

UpSkill Houston also is helping to change the conversation around career requirements. With the different jobs available now and those coming online, it’s not just a four-year degree that students should consider. It’s a certificate. It’s other post-secondary options. It’s continuous learning that’s going to have to take place throughout a career. Changing those conversations is crucial. 

What would you tell colleagues about the value of bringing everybody to a single table to address workforce challenges?  

We’re taking a regional issue and tackling it from a regional approach. Everybody’s at the table working together and taking actions to make sure we address the future of our workforce. The viability of Houston is based on our workforce and how we prepare workers for the future. 

We can’t afford not to be at the UpSkill Houston table. We have to be there, listening and responding, to prepare the workforce. My graduates need to know that they’re prepared for the next job and how they can continue to upskill for the jobs of the future. We need all the community colleges and higher ed partners at the table on this initiative because it’s important work. 

This article is one of a series of four Q&As with executives who participated in a roundtable hosted by UpSkill Houston. Don’t miss insights from executives from business, K-12, and community development, also available online. 

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Tapping Into Hidden Talent By Recognizing Soft and Other Skills

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the disruption of entire industries along with the way work can be done. And as technology and other forces reshape the nature of work, recognizing soft and other skills as real drivers of success can have more profound effects on rebuilding a high performing workforce, regaining employment and choosing good careers and education pathways than ever before. Recently, Greg Hambrick, co-founder and CEO of the skills identifying company Fast Forward Works; Dr. Fred Oswald, organizational psychologist and professor at Rice University’s School of Social Sciences and Herbert S. Autrey Chair in Social Sciences and Director of Graduate Studies; and Mandy Williams (AKA Black), managing partner at RED+BLACK, recently shared their research, analysis and personal experience to help employers, educators and community leaders understand just how important recognizing soft and cognitive skills can be. The conversation was part of the UpSkill Houston initiative’s UpSkill Works Forum Series, hosted by Partnership Senior Vice President of Regional Workforce Development Peter Beard, and centered on: How employers can focus hiring practices on skills to tap into a talented and diverse workforce;  How individuals can identify the skills they possess and highlight them while pursuing employment; and How recognizing and developing soft and cognitive skills can help workers and students excel. Soft skills, including teamwork, communication, time management, empathy and negotiation, have applications across diverse industries and occupations. According to Hambrick, whose company helps organizations and individuals identify their cognitive skillsets, they are generally dynamic and are learned through experience.    Job analysis can drive better hiring decisions Most hiring decisions are based on what a hiring manager can measure. Soft and cognitive skills are difficult to measure; grades and standardized test scores are far easier. But “clearinghouses” that screen candidates heavily based on education are likely weeding out candidates who, based on the skills they possess, would be good fits. Thus, talent is and can remain hidden because organizations simply don’t know enough about their candidates. Employers can identify specific skills needed on a team or by a new employee by looking at two things. First, what key skills do high performers in similar roles possess. Second, what past issues or absence of certain skills caused problems within a workplace or contributed to a former employee’s transfer or termination. Once these skills are identified, employers can adjust recruiting strategies to find candidates who possess them and consider training programs develop and strengthen these skills, Oswald noted. Employers can also assess how far a candidate (or employee) with those skills can progress within an organization. This type of attention to skills on an employer’s side – as opposed to attention just to education or prior work experience – can particularly help overlooked populations like veterans or second-chance individuals who have a variety of skills be recognized as fits, Oswald and Hambrick said.  Diversifying how employers seek and select talent can also diversify a workforce, Oswald said.  “Grades are important to reflect knowledge, but knowledge is, obviously, not the only component of a good employee,” Oswald said. For their part, job candidates can list on their resumes the skills they believe they have and then be prepared with examples that demonstrate these skills, if asked during an interview. 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The UpSkill Works Forum Series is a series of interviews with business and community leaders, policy makers, and leading thinkers on the key workforce issues our region confronts. Learn more about Fast Forward Works here. Learn more about Dr. Fred Oswald’s work with Rice University here. Learn more about RED+BLACK here. See the UpSkill Houston and RED+BLACK Soft Skills series here.  Skills assessment resources can be found through the Society for HR Management. The U.S. Office of Personnel Management and the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology. Related Reading: Hiring for Heart, Hunger and Humility: Employer Partners Share Truths About Human Skills and Hiring Decisions.  
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COVID-19 Shocks Labor Economy and Drives Unprecedented Job Loss—the Case for Upskilling and Reskilling

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These figures only account for the first half of March, before the region’s Stay Home – Work Safe orders were made. This roughly 30% growth in the number of unemployed individuals outpaces the national increase of about 20%. Houston, Harvey noted, is experiencing the dual effects of COVID-19 and the downturn in the oil industry. Between the beginning of March and mid-April, around 314,000 individuals filed initial claims for unemployment insurance, cumulatively; about 10 times the number of claims made during a typical six-week period when the economy functions normally. Using this figure, Harvey projects unemployment rates to be closer to 12%-12.5% in the next couple months. This would reflect record unemployment, Harvey said.  Unemployment claims data by industry and by county from the Texas Workforce Commission can be found here. Employment losses have been widespread across industries, though notably large within construction, manufacturing and the leisure and hospitality sector. The leisure and hospitality losses break the long-time trend of unbroken job gains in those areas between the months of February and June. Moving forward, Harvey expects to see layoffs shift from the service sector to the white-collar workforce. Job posting data as market indicator and seeing hopeful signs Specific, localized data around which industries and occupational types are contracting or growing takes time to gather and analyze, and data that exist do not yet reflect the climate of the last several weeks. Analyzing online job postings can provide a proxy. And although the number of active job postings are down by about one-third from this time last year, there are still about 90,000 active jobs posted across the region. Based on an analysis of job postings, Harvey has seen a surge in demand for editors, producers and translators (he noted the tremendous amount of news and other media content that has been created around the crisis). Public education systems are also hiring. 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Digital skills, which were already becoming increasingly important in many industries and sectors, could become even more important if jobs that could have been done in person become a little more remote more often. Preferences for online shopping habits could increase – or decrease -  Harvey is concerned that young workers who relied upon entry-level jobs as a pathway into higher-level employment and older workers approaching retirement could face challenges returning to the labor market and said the Gulf Coast Workforce Board will explore how to address these needs through reskilling. 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