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Understanding Houston's Jobseekers to Aid Recovery

Published Sep 13, 2021 by Susan Moore

Watch a recording of the UpSkill Works Forum above

Jobseekers across greater Houston are fresh faces, hard workers, resilient, and survivors. They are tenacious, they are hopeful, and they want to develop the skills to get good jobs. 

Despite the region’s substantial job recovery – with nearly 60 percent of the 361,400 nonfarm jobs lost over March and April 2020 recovered by July 2021 – full recovery of Houston’s labor market to February 2020 levels is not likely until late 2022 at the earliest, according to the July Houston Area Employment Situation. The impacts of the pandemic on the nature of work and the skills needed to be successful in a post-pandemic economy will take months and years to understand. Generally, there is a need for increased digital and technology skills and employers are seeking workers with strong foundational and soft skills such as communications, customer service, problem-solving and critical thinking. 

It is clear that Houston’s under- and unemployed residents – the tenacious, hopeful jobseekers striving to get better jobs – will remain a sizeable portion of the population. Understanding the motivations and anxieties of these Houstonians through representative personas can help organizations support and serve them as they seek better career opportunities and can provide employers with key insights into how they can recruit and retain talent. 

Personas deepen empathy and provide context for data – context that employers and community support organizations can use to understand the jobseeker or client experiences and improve communication around program, training, and job opportunities, Jen Shafer told the audience of an UpSkill Works Forum held in August

“Sometimes it’s really difficult to think about how to apply a certain finding or piece of data, but if ’the data is applied in the context of this empathy tool - this persona that you already have - it makes it a lot easier for people to ideate on possible solutions,” she said.

Shafer, a master’s fellow with Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Integrated Design & Management program working with the Partnership’s UpSkill Houston initiative, partnered with several organizations in United Way of Greater Houston’s THRIVE financial stability network to research the region’s jobseekers as part of the Partnership’s ongoing effort to help rebuild the region’s workforce and economy after the pandemic. 

Through her research, Shafer identified four personas representative of today’s underemployed and unemployed jobseekers: the “fresh face” who is curious, inexperienced, and finds it challenging to navigate the system; the “mayday mom” who is a busy and motivated mother frustrated by a monotonous job where she is unchallenged and unappreciated; the “Houston strong” worker who has weathered trauma and, while resourceful and resilient, is fearful about being stigmatized for seeking the mental healthcare she needs; and the “wise and worried” project manager who was laid off from a job he was proud of amid the COVID-19 pandemic and is anxiously approaching retirement age without a sense of job security despite his advanced degrees.

Employers can use personas to develop better ways to market job opportunities and to explore how they can meet the needs of jobseekers during the hiring and onboarding process. Community organizations can use personas to construct user journeys that highlight pain points, anticipate jobseeker challenges, and consider system-level changes that can be made to align the efforts across organizations in service of the end user. Personas illuminate the concerns and anxieties that weigh on jobseekers, and understanding these emotions and experiences enables more effective communication. 

For example, career coaches and counselors who understand that individuals may feel stuck in jobs that lack purpose can frame potential jobs differently to highlight the importance and meaning of these roles, such as by noting how society is being served by the work or how others in the organization all share the same mission, said Rice University School of Social Sciences professor and workforce expert Fred Oswald.

“If you really want to understand whether an application is going to be effective, you really need to understand the context of the individual and what motivates them,” he said. 

In addition, people change their preferences about what is meaningful to them, employers are using new technology that redefines what jobs are, and applicants are redefining themselves through education, suggesting there is opportunity to design efforts to connect in a way that is meaningful to jobseekers and employers, Oswald said. Personas can help create a common language between organizations.

Shafer posited that organizations and employers do not have to embark on months-long studies to derive personas; personas can be drawn through a few strategic conversations with individuals.

Hope, Support, and Where to Find Them

Shafer also shared an underlying current of hope, but also of loneliness – a sense of going it alone – that ran through her research interviews. This underscores the need for individuals to feel supported as workforce recovery continues.

Connecting individuals to communities where they will not feel lonely can help fortify that hope, said Greg Hambrick, CEO of Fast Forward Works, a company that uses a cloud-based application that efficiently captures the individual innate abilities and dispositions associated with most jobs. Fast Forward Works assists individuals, organizations, and employers to set up individuals for career success.

“When we can more fully understand how those folks relate to their daily challenges, we can do a better job of helping them find a pathway to success,” he said.

Houston’s jobseekers are not alone – numerous organizations such as Change Happens! and The WorkFaith Connection and others that make up United Way’s THRVE network offer an array of trainings and supports that run the gamut from financial literacy and coaching to job preparation to wraparound supports and services. United Way of Greater Houston president and CEO Amanda McMillian noted that agency partners can use personas to understand what is needed to help individuals get to the front door of an employer ready to work and grow in a career.

Change Happens! designs its services, which empower people to help themselves, around the problems and pain points its clients face, said organization CEO Helen Stagg. The WorkFaith Connection’s faith-based training and coaching programs all point to providing “the hope and the how,” said Matt Killian, its chief operating officer. They both recognized Shafer’s fresh face, mayday mom, Houston strong, and wise and worried personas among their clients but noted that each came with their own unique experiences and stories.

McMillian said that making sure agency partners have navigators who can help clients along their journeys is a critical feature of United Way’s second century vision, which is focused on addressing the roots of the complex challenges that are holding people back from that opportunity and from achieving and getting down the path to financial stability. 

McMillian said United Way sees the greatest success with agencies that take a hands-on approach and make sure clients know the resources available to them and follow up with them.

“You're not just providing access, you are providing hope, you are providing guidance,” she 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. See previous UpSkill Works forums here.