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Texas Community Colleges Step Up for State's Recovery

Published Feb 25, 2021 by Peter Beard

Brenda Hellyer

TRUE Seeks to Accelerate Skills Training and Upskilling Needed by Employers

The COVID-19 pandemic and economic downturn have dealt an undeniable blow to greater Houston’s workforce. As 2020 came to a close, our regional economy recovered approximately 60 percent of the 360,000 jobs lost last March, but that still left roughly 150,000 residents across the Houston area without jobs at the end of the year. While the regional number is declining, statewide, the number stands at approximately 544,000 people who are unemployed due to the pandemic. The changing market and the way work has been conducted during the pandemic have shifted the skills individuals need to reenter the workforce.

In the fall of 2019, community colleges across Texas enrolled more than 740,000 students. With that level of enrollment, Texas community colleges are positioned to have a significant impact on the long-term growth of the Texas economy. Community colleges provide 92 percent of career and technical credentials in Texas. Community colleges, therefore, are the ideal places for displaced workers and job seekers to gain new skills or credentials that lead to good paying jobs.

In response to the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Texas Association of Community Colleges (TACC), an association of community college CEOs from across the state, has proposed a new Texas Reskilling & Upskilling through Education (TRUE) initiative. This initiative would be a $50 million investment to help reskill and upskill the Texas workforce, put Texans back to work in high demand occupations, and accelerate the state's economic recovery. TRUE will accelerate job seekers’ transitioning to the workforce while simultaneously building an educational structure that supports the Texas economy across the state’s diverse regions. It is a legislative priority of TACC for the 87th Legislative Session. 

Below, Dr. Brenda Hellyer, chancellor of San Jacinto College and chair of TACC, answers questions about the TRUE Workforce Initiative and how it can help individuals get back to work. 

Community colleges are largely thought of as higher education institutions that prepare students to enter four-year colleges or as places to earn an associate degree over two or more years. Two years is a long time for adults who need good paying jobs now. What are the kinds of programs community colleges have that tie into the TRUE initiative and can help people get back to work quickly? 

For Texans looking for a job, TRUE will offer quick and relevant reskilling and upskilling credentialing opportunities that can be completed in weeks or less than six months.

Looking at workforce training from a statewide perspective, Texas community colleges are committed to delivering solutions that meet the needs of hundreds of thousands of dislocated workers and other learners while aligning with the needs of employers. Our state’s community colleges have a broad range of existing workforce certification programs that meet the needs of employers across the state’s industry sectors.

Nine community colleges are serving the industries of the Houston/Gulf Coast region. At San Jacinto College, our partnerships with energy, health care, petrochemical, manufacturing, transportation, construction, maritime, aerospace, and other industries have allowed us to build and offer a number of industry-aligned and recognized certificates, in addition to other learning programs that will be available under TRUE. For example, San Jacinto College offers short term certifications as well certificates leading to an Associate of Applied Science degree (we call them Level 1 and Level 2 Certificates) that allow students to gain the skills needed to enter and be successful in the workforce. Students can build toward an associate degree or take courses through our non-credit or continuing education programs (called Continuing Professional Development or CPD, at San Jac). Welding, truck driving, maritime, and aerospace technicians are examples of programs that have multiple paths.

This same alignment and collaboration will happen across the state of Texas through the TRUE initiative.

TRUE Credentials (see below) will also include new accelerated employment training that will lead to living-wage occupations through high-demand programs that are attainable and may be stackable to propel Texans to work or earn an associate degree.

 

Who is the ideal student for these kinds of programs?

TRUE will benefit dislocated workers, other adult learners, returning students, and will ultimately include incumbent workers. As an example, the younger worker under the age of 24 with only a high school diploma or less took a particularly hard hit and experienced unemployment rates exceeding 20 percent in November based on the numbers of people actively looking for work in the Houston MSA. These young adults need a win, a skill, and a credential to move them into the ranks of the employed.

Unfortunately, our state’s unemployment rate at the end of December 2020 was double what it was before the pandemic. Many of those individuals come from the service sector, and TRUE will offer needed skills and training to this broad range of workers with the goal to accelerate their return to work.

What types of wrap-around and financial supports will we need to consider to ensure displaced workers can complete these programs?

There are many dimensions to the challenges facing our students during the pandemic that must be considered to support student success. Early in the pandemic, TACC polled community college students around the state and found that 73 percent of respondents said that if an emergency arose in the next 30 days, they would have difficulty coming up with $500. Nearly half reported they cannot access the internet, and over half said they are struggling to find a quiet time and space to study. In response, community colleges across the state are providing support such as proactive career navigation, emergency aid, computers, hot spots for internet access, and more to help students complete credentials and get good paying jobs. Community colleges also offer stackable credentials, so students can return for further education that will bolster future promotions and increased wages. Through the TRUE initiative, community colleges will leverage existing support services, maximize flexibilities afforded by new learning environments, and ensure strong partnerships with local workforce boards. This will allow community college students to receive the support needed to complete programs successfully.

How does a community college know what jobs are really out there, and what students need to know or be able to do to get those jobs and keep those jobs?

TRUE is designed to be employer-informed and partnership-driven. It cannot succeed without employer engagement.

Community colleges believe strongly in employer engagement and work with business representatives to inform new continuing education, workforce, and general academic programs. At San Jacinto College, we developed a business practice of forming a Chancellor’s Advisory Council to inform our actions. We have done this in our maritime, petrochemical, and aerospace programs, along with the expansion of our health care programs including adding a Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree. Currently, we are seeking to engage professionals in the logistics industry to form a strong logistics program. The members of the councils from business, industry, and the college are decision-makers. These councils are anchored in trust and respect with the focus on listening to industry and truly responding to their needs. This means changing curriculum, aligning outcomes, addressing performance gaps, and being at the table together. At the state level, TACC has formed a statewide Business Advisory Council to offer guidance and insights on employer workforce needs, to advance TRUE, and to advise on other priorities.

TACC is also using real-time labor market data to assess high-demand occupations and the related critical skills to guide reskilling and upskilling opportunities. In many cases, we have existing programs. In others, we will work in partnership with the Business Advisory Council to address emerging or growing demand with a focus on accelerated learning through TRUE.

In addition to our work with employers on defining skills and competencies, we must continue our work together to raise career awareness, highlighting the broad range of opportunities available to students with a particular focus on equipping them with the knowledge to communicate those critical skills attained.

As we have talked with other regions and states focused on rapid reskilling, many of these roles require general customer service skills. How can community colleges come together to develop rapid reskilling in customer service?

At San Jacinto College, our industry partners have asked us to embed “soft skills” training into our courses. With many of the industries, safety is also greatly emphasized and embedded into the curriculum of courses. For students, it can be a bit repetitious to hear about showing up on time, being responsible, reporting on others who are not being safe, etc., but it is important to our business partners that students hear these messages multiple times. They must be ingrained in their responses and embedded throughout the curriculum.

At TACC, the general approach is to identify supply and demand skills gaps and work in partnership to build learning opportunities to equip the current and future workforce with needed skills.

Under TRUE, we are committed to identifying the skills and competencies needed for success. We know from research on skills required in job postings in 2020 that “soft skills” or human skills are required alongside technical skills. Problem solving, teamwork, and customer service are included with human skills. The TRUE initiative includes the development and accommodation for existing college programs or industry credentials that close high demand occupational skills gaps.

The TRUE initiative wants to help individuals develop the relevant skills and earn the right credentials to re-enter the workforce, quickly, but that’s not the only aim. What are some of the longer-term outcomes the initiative is working toward?

While TRUE will deliver high demand skills through short-term, industry recognized credentials we call TRUE Credentials, the initiative will also build sustainable talent pipelines (TRUE Pathways) to meet future local and regional workforce needs by leveraging existing Texas Success Center (TSC) Guided Pathways work. This strategy will provide linked learning pathways allowing students to efficiently stack and earn related high demand completion points. There will be multiple completion points leading to good paying jobs and/or quality associate degrees.

We know that we can offer accelerated employment training that will lead to occupations that pay family sustaining wages. We also believe that by working in partnership with our state leaders, as short-term credentials increase, we will be advancing to meet the goals of 60x30TX. This is an important opportunity to close completion gaps under the current plan and to meet the goals of Texas higher education plan by 2030.

Like all of our TRUE work, there will be industry sector partnership and alignment to maximize benefits to our students and employers.

 

How can employers support the TRUE initiative’s goals?

TRUE will be delivering accelerated training and industry-recognized credentials that target existing and emerging skills gaps informed by labor market demand, employer insight, and regional and statewide targeted occupations lists. Our goal is to have employers hire these skilled workers as positions become available. Our partnerships can accelerate the reemployment of dislocated workers and the upskilling of incumbent workers while also accelerating a stronger economic recovery.

An example taken from San Jacinto College can be found in the petrochemical program. As the plants introduce new technology or proprietary process improvements, the college can set up training for those business partners, protecting their proprietary interests, and upskill current workers with the new equipment and/or processes. Trusting that community colleges will deliver is the key to these business partnerships.

Texas employers can join community colleges by offering guidance and insight on high demand occupations in their specific industry. This continued partnership between business and community colleges will help define the skills and competencies needed so that students can walk out of the classroom and into businesses ready to work.

As we build TRUE Pathways, employers can help us strengthen avenues for further skills development, credit attainment, and higher levels of completion. We are also committed to working with the business community to strengthen work-based learning opportunities for our students such as internships, apprenticeships, and other models that meet each employer’s preference.

Finally, employers can help community colleges promote TRUE with sector partners, advise cross sector collaboration opportunities, and advance replication and scaling of efforts. A key tenet of this work is efficiency in closing skills gaps within and across sectors.

 

Learn more about the TRUE initiative. Dr. Hellyer is a member of the UpSkill Houston initiative’s executive committee. Learn more about the initiative and its work.