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How a Focus on Skills, Not Background, Can Future-Proof Houston’s Workforce

Published Jun 19, 2019 by Peter Beard

Beth Cobert
Beth Cobert

Lasting changes in job skill needs, expansion of technology in work and learning, and increasing mobility of companies and workers are among the critical trends affecting the development of our regional and national workforce. The 2019 UpSkill Works Conference will dive into these and other developments and their meaning for Greater Houston’s future on June 25.

Beth Cobert, CEO of Skillful, will take part in a fireside chat to discuss the increasing role of technology and automation in the workplace. Skillful is a non-profit initiative of the Markle Foundation, and is developing skills-based training and employment practices in collaboration with state governments, local employers, educators and workforce development organizations. 

Below, Cobert shares more about how the workforce is changing and where the opportunities are for Greater Houston. 

What are the differences between a skills-based labor market and a credentials-based labor market?

A skills-based labor market is one in which the entire workforce system, including workers, employers, and educators, share a common language around skills. In a skills-based labor market, workers know how to clearly express their skills, no matter where they were obtained. Employers can determine exactly what skills they need and attract and hire the people most likely to flourish in a given position. And educators and training providers can tailor their curricula with a focus on skills to better fit the labor market’s demands. 

Credentials are an important element of helping workers communicate the skills they have in a way that can provide clarity around the skills a person has. They can also help workers and companies build and communicate skills in targeted ways that will be needed as the economy continues its rapid pace of change. Educators and training providers are, and will continue to be, enormously powerful as we look to help workers become lifelong learners, a necessity in today and tomorrow’s labor market. 

Can you share one of your success stories?

Sure—we have lots of stories of people whom Skillful and our partners have helped connect to a better career or employers who have found new sources of great talent by adopting skills-based practices.  As one example, after working with Skillful, a call center and customer service center run by the state of Colorado changed its talent management processes to focus on skills rather than prior experience. The director of this division reported that this new, skills-based approach helped her department decrease her vacancy rate from 35 percent to under 10 percent and that abandonment rates have fallen from 60 percent to less than eight percent. And all these changes took place over a short six-month period. What stuck out to me when hearing her story was that the quality of the services improved. Skills-based practices helped her and her department get there. She also highlighted how these new processes have improved morale; by creating career paths that explicitly tie skills to pay raises, employees are “more invested and engaged in their work” and now have more opportunities for advancement.

For us, that’s what success looks like: connecting people to rewarding work for which they might not have been considered and providing them with career paths to help them remain competitive in today’s changing economy.

What opportunity do you see in Greater Houston’s own efforts to address our workforce challenges? 

The Greater Houston Partnership’s approach is parallel to ours in that it encourages cross-sector collaboration, a strong spirit of partnership, and works at broadening people’s narrow definitions of what a “good” job entails.

For instance, their campaign “My Life As” helps students and their parents understand the many career options available that don’t necessarily follow what you might consider a “traditional” career path. This work is perhaps the most important: changing the narrative. Opportunities are rampant and can be found in many places; the key is to realize how to take advantage of them.

Beth Cobert will share more in a fireside chat during the 2019 UpSkill Works Conference, hosted by the Greater Houston Partnership, June 25. Learn more about the conference and how you can register here

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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. Interviewers can tease out these skills by asking leading questions, Williams said.   Recognizing skills helps students plan for careers build confidence The earlier skills can be measured the better because students can be made aware of their strengths and deficiencies. Once students recognize these skillsets within themselves and begin to understand them as foundational for various careers or educational curricula, they can begin to more clearly identify their own career and education paths, Hambrick said.  Hambrick noted that we generally describe high achievers to be students who make high grades or score high on standardized tests. We aren’t guiding and assisting the students who are generally not considered to be high achievers by helping them understand the strong and valuable skills they do possess, like teamwork, leadership or creativity. By doing that, we can empower them to believe in their own potential, Hambrick said. “When you can show somebody that in an objective way, it makes a huge difference on their outlook and I think raises the ceiling on what they are able to accomplish,” he said.                      AI will enhance the need for soft skills Hambrick, Oswald and Williams believe that soft skills will remain critical – if not become more critical – as automation of certain repetitive and routine tasks becomes more widespread and changes the way individuals and teams function and work gets done. Skills that underlie human-to-human interaction, such as communication, negotiation, empathy, will remain necessary and individuals who possess them will become more highly prized. “You’re always going to need individuals with the ability to adapt to change and manage the human side of work,” Williams said. 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

The painful and significant disruption to Houston’s labor economy caused by COVID-19 has been a “shock to the system” but will not effectively change the economy’s fundamental makeup. So says Parker Harvey, principal economist for the Gulf Coast Workforce Board.  Harvey shared that and other insights into the changing labor market during a virtual UpSkill Works Forum hosted by Greater Houston Partnership Senior Vice President of Regional Workforce Development Peter Beard. Harvey and Beard discussed some observed unprecedented unemployment figures, employment indicators and ways in which the region’s workforce can set itself up for recovery. Disruptions to the labor market are unprecedented  From February to March, the region’s unemployment rate jumped from roughly 3.9 percent to 5.1 percent, an increase on par with that of May of 2009, and one of the biggest one-month jumps ever seen. 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. Selective hiring is occurring within the health care sector.  Workforce Solutions posts active job openings on its website here. Harvey has started seeing some good news more generally in these postings: The number of employers removing job postings has started to decrease. The point at which more employers are increasing their number of job postings than are decreasing it can be seen as an indicator of some recovery, but Harvey believes that point is still in the distance. Sequencing of recovery is unclear Harvey expressed uncertainty around whether the service sector would recover before the professional sector, or vice versa, but he believes businesses that instill a sense of confidence in consumers around delivery of service and safety and health will recover more quickly as they re-open than those that do not. He predicts the economy in Houston will recover in a sort of “W” shape, with starts and stops before a full recovery begins, especially if there is a second wave of COVID-19 infections, thus rocking consumer confidence. Harvey expects industries that rely on a density of customers, like mass transportation and entertainment, will be slow to recover. The Greater Houston Partnership has developed 15 principles to help businesses develop plans to protect the health of their employees and customers by reducing the risk of transmission of the COVID-19 virus. Learn more about this Safe Work Program here.  Reskilling should help workforce recovery COVID-19 could have long-term effects on the types of skills Houston’s workforce needs. New types of trainings and skill development programs may be needed to manage hygiene protocols to keep workers and customer safe. 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. Harvey believes individuals who have been acquiring skills over the last several weeks will have an employability advantage over those who have not.   The UpSkill Works Forum Series brings you interviews with business and community leaders, policy makers, and leading thinkers on the key workforce issues our region confronts. This week’s webinar will take place on Wednesday, May 6 and focus on “Understanding Skills to Navigate the Changing Nature of Work.”  Learn more about UpSkill Houston here.   
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