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UpSkill Houston Fuels a Stronger Economy with Greater Opportunity

Employers across Greater Houston are looking to hire qualified residents for good-paying careers that require skills beyond high school, but less than a four-year college degree. Nearly 1 million such positions exist, and the number is projected to grow. Yet employers face difficulties finding workers to fill these occupations. 

Through research, analysis, and engagement with critical stakeholders, UpSkill Houston understands the barriers to attracting, training, and placing qualified workers in these careers. UpSkill Houston brings stakeholders together and helps them:

UpSkill Houston challenges employers, educators, community-based leaders, and public officials to join us in accelerated, collective action to grow the skilled workforce Houston needs to compete in the global, 21st century economy and create opportunity for all Houstonians. 

UpSkill Houston has emerged as a leader for bold change by orchestrating the direct impact necessary to create a pipeline of skilled workers for the region’s employers and better pathways to prosperity for the region’s residents. Our progress, approach, and framework have served as the inspiration or model for workforce development initiatives in Texas and across the country. Learn more here. 


Factors Affecting the Growth of a Skilled Workforce

Employers across Greater Houston are looking to hire qualified area residents for good paying, rewarding careers that require skills beyond high school, but less than a four-year college degree. Of the more than 3.1 million workers in Greater Houston, more than 920,000 or 30 percent are employed in occupations meeting these criteria. The region’s recent overall rapid job growth included meaningful growth in these occupations, and this trend is expected to continue over the next five years.

Yet employers are facing difficulties finding workers with the skills and education to fill these positions. There is a strong push for students to pursue four-year college degrees. Certain industries struggle with outdated perceptions about their work. Effective career guidance for these careers is lacking. Also, current workers who are unemployed or under-employed face multiple challenges as they seek to upskill and reskill into these occupations.

Further, Houston’s economy and industries are being reshaped by technology and other global forces at a more rapid pace than ever before, impacting talent needs. As technology affects all jobs — creating new ones, augmenting others, and automating some — digital skills will increasingly be a requirement in all occupations. In addition, employers are placing a premium on soft and noncognitive skills.

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UpSkill Houston Facilitates Workforce Conversations

UpSkill Houston launched its UpSkill Works Forum Series to foster workforce development discussions and actions across greater Houston’s employer, education and non-profit communities by presenting 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. The series supports and advances the initiative’s work to help employers identify the key skills they need for workers to be successful, provide relevant information about careers and pathways, and drive effective career guidance.

UpSkill Houston Unites Partners to Overcome Barriers

The Greater Houston Partnership believes that broad and meaningful employer leadership is necessary to bridge the divide between employers’ demands and workforce needs. The Partnership committed to address the region’s skills gap by establishing the UpSkill Houston initiative to help employers find the right talent when and where they are needed and to help individuals gain the right skills and credentials to access the good jobs employers offer. 

Since 2014, UpSkill Houston has mobilized leaders from more than 200 prominent businesses, K-12 districts, community colleges, community-based organizations, and public agencies to work collectively to understand — and overcome — the barriers to attracting, training, placing, and growing qualified workers in good careers that are vital to the region’s global competitiveness.

Already UpSkill Houston and its partners have demonstrated how, working collectively, they can prepare incoming workers for good careers in vital industries, reskill incumbent workers for changing occupations, create shared prosperity for area families, and enable high-demand industries to thrive. 

Examples of efforts by UpSkill Houston and it partners to address talent pipeline challenges, include: 

ATTRACT: Working initially with partners in the construction, health science, petrochemical, and transportation industries, UpSkill Houston has created a series of videos and resources that showcase for students, parents, and workers seeking new opportunities a variety of good careers that don’t require a four-year college degree. The videos are available at 

TRAIN: MAREK recently partnered with Houston Independent School District and Houston Community College (HCC) to enable high school students to earn industry-recognized Level 1 certificates from HCC and drywall credentials through work experience at MAREK by the time they graduate with their high school diplomas. MAREK’s pre-apprenticeship program is patterned after a similar program developed by TRIO Electric with HCC and Spring Branch Independent School District. 

PLACE:  Since its founding in 2014, NextOp has placed approximately 2,100 “middle-enlisted” veterans — most without a four-year college degree — in meaningful careers, by connecting employers’ need for job-ready candidates with service members’ ability to succeed at a different mission, with different resources. NextOp helps employers recognize veterans’ talents and notice them in a candidate pool, while coaching veterans to describe their skills in a way employers value. 


UpSkill Houston and its partners have built a strong foundation, yet there is more work to be done. We need employers to articulate, with a collective voice, the skills and competencies they need in their workers. We need educational partners to adapt and improve curricula and prepare students for the good jobs that don’t require four years of college. We need community-based organizations to continuously improve their programs that prepare their clients for these good jobs.
Through UpSkill Houston programs, regional leaders share ideas with national thought leaders, such as Joseph B. Fuller, Harvard Business School professor and co-director of the school’s Managing the Future of Work project.

“We all go to lots of meetings where we talk about what needs to be fixed but rarely do individuals own the work to make something happen. It’s very impressive how UpSkill Houston has been able to bring everyone together to accomplish common goals.”

Linda Aldred
Texas Children’s Hospital

“The minute I heard there was an opportunity to leverage what the Greater Houston Partnership was doing to make our industry better and our company better, joining UpSkill Houston was a no-brainer.”

Daniel M. Gilbane
Gilbane Building Co.

“I am sitting in Alief Independent School District watching my students' lives change because of efforts like this.”

HD Chambers
Alief Independent School District

“UpSkill Houston helped us build relationships across sectors and made sure we were all talking about the same issues.”

Brenda Hellyer
San Jacinto Community College

Continued National Acclaim for UpSkill Houston

UpSkill Houston has been cited as an exemplar by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation's Talent Pipeline Management Initiative, the Communities that Work Partnership of the U.S. Department of Commerce and the Aspen Institute, the Global Cities Initiative of the Brookings Institution and JP Morgan Chase, and United Way Worldwide. UpSkill Houston has hosted business and community leaders from Phoenix; Detroit; Tampa Bay, Fla.; and Buffalo-Niagara, NY to learn about our employer-led approach. Our work has been featured in The Houston ChronicleHouston Business JournalForbesThe Hill, and U.S. News & World Report. Our partners have received extensive coverage for their workforce development and educational advancement efforts from local and national press.

Recent News


Rebooting Community Colleges to Get Americans Back to Work

In the early 1980s, roughly two thirds of American jobs were open to individuals with only a high school diploma; by 2019, two thirds of American jobs require more education beyond high school, according to the Washington, D.C.-based think tank and policy shop Opportunity America. Many jobs now require more education and skills than a high school diploma but not a four-year college degree. What’s more, as the COVID-19 pandemic precipitated layoffs and accelerated the pace of digitalization of the workplace, it sharply increased the need for immediate upskilling of American workers to re-enter or remain in the workforce. The nation’s 1,100 two-year community and technical colleges can be where traditional students gain the knowledge, skills and credentials they need to start careers and where non-traditional students learn new skills to maintain or improve their career prospects. But is a reboot necessary in order for them to better serve their students? Community colleges across the nation have long held a number of primary missions: Graduate students who transfer to four-year colleges or universities (the credit side); graduate students with applied technical degrees and certificates (the credit side); and provide individuals with short-term job-focused upskilling to get them to a better job (the non-credit side). Many strive to fulfill these missions and there is room to align and improve the workforce outcomes of their students regardless of their pathway. According to Opportunity America data, close to 12 million students were enrolled in community colleges before the pandemic, with close to half enrolled in credit programs. Roughly 77 percent of students who enroll in credit courses expect to attain a bachelor’s degree but only 13 percent do. This summer, Opportunity America released a report calling upon community colleges to reboot and place workforce education more at the center of their mission and culture and embrace their role as the nation’s premier provider of job-focused education and training. The report, “The Indispensable Institution – Reimagining Community College,” outlines the important role of community colleges can play in helping individuals adapt to the changes in the economy and upskill themselves in order to get back to work. Americans at all education levels will need to develop new skills and build on existing ones as they adjust to changes due to the greater use of technology in their workplaces or re-enter the workforce because of the COVID-19-driven shock to the labor market and economy. In early December, Tamar Jacoby, president of Opportunity America, discussed how community colleges can live up to their promise of workforce education with Partnership Senior Vice President of Workforce Development Peter Beard during an UpSkill Works forum. Jacoby highlighted the need for many community colleges to improve the workforce outcomes of their students by building better bridges between the credit division and the non-credit division of schools. This approach could help keep students looking for a job in the short-term from retaking courses or relearning skills if they want to return for a degree later in life. It can also help students who seek a bachelor’s degree prepare to enter the workforce. Jacoby also illuminated ways in which some community colleges could improve their offerings and programs, and with them, workforce outcomes, for non-credit students. Employers and educators need to build meaningful partnerships with deep engagement. The non-credit divisions of community colleges can be nimbler and more responsive to the labor market and employer needs because the programs are designed with specific workforce outcomes in mind. Jacoby shared that the “secret sauce” is labor alignment, and programs cannot be aligned with employer needs without employer engagement. “You can’t do job-focused education without the people who know the jobs. That is like a manufacturer creating a machine part without knowing […] the specs for the rest of the machine,” Jacoby said. Employers and educators share responsibility for effectively communicating with each other since both sides speak in different languages, come from different cultures and have different senses of time, she said. This year, the Texas Senate Higher Education Committee took on the charge of examining existing innovative programs that assist non-traditional students in completing a degree or credential and considering methods the state could use to partner with higher education institutions to expand successful programs. The development of San Jacinto College’s LyondellBasell Center for Petrochemical, Engineering, and Technology Center, which opened in the fall of 2019, is one example of a Houston-area community college designing a program with significant input and guidance from employers to meet industry workforce needs and standards. Employers need to explain their needs to faculty but also to guidance and career counselors. Jacoby encouraged employers to lend employees to educational institutions to serve as counselors to help students navigate to a job or career path to pursue. Employers also need to be honest with colleges about the on-the-job performance of their graduates. “When the graduates they hire have the skills, the colleges need to know. But when the graduates don't have skills, the colleges really need to know,” she said. Ultimately, job placements, rather than enrollments, should be the primary metric for success, she said. She acknowledged the importance of community colleges in preparing students to transfer and earn bachelor’s degrees, but urged the schools to make sure those students, too, graduate with workplace skills including business communication, business math and some familiarity with the labor market and their career interests. Measuring success in terms of job placements would encourage community colleges to improve how they prepare students to navigate careers, she said. But what of today’s workforce and individuals displaced by the pandemic? Jacoby warned that individuals who entered the workforce five or 10 or 20 years ago may have as little knowledge of the current labor market or what they’re aiming for than a traditional student. Displaced adults need help in these areas, too, and don’t find it at many community colleges. Jacoby believes the less time a displaced worker stays out of the workforce (and the less time skills have to become stale), the better. The United States has not been particularly good at training displaced workers, she said, citing the lack of career navigation supports and meaningful partnerships between employers and training providers. Employers who anticipate layoffs can perform skills assessments for employees so they know how these skills could map to a different job or what type of training the employee needs to change jobs. During an UpSkill Works forum in November, guest Matthew Daniel, principal consultant with Guild Education, shared ways employers could structure education programs to support upskilling to achieve better educational and skills development outcomes. “All jobs are going to change,” Jacoby said. “Name a job. It’s different than it was six, nine months ago and it’s going to be different in another nine months.”   Related: Higher Education Gains from its Role in the UpSkill Houston Collaboration The UpSkill Houston initiative's UpSkill Works forum series engages business and community leaders, policy makers and leading thinkers on the key workforce issues our region and nation confront. View all past UpSkill Works Forums.
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Experiences, Engagement Key to Career Exploration

Beginning with the 2014-15 school year, Texas students entering ninth grade could choose to complete the academic and course requirements for one of five endorsements: science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM); business and industry; public services; arts and humanities; and multidisciplinary. A student’s chosen endorsement has long-lasting implications on their educational and career pathways; courses they take in high school matter and set the stage for the education, skills training, and careers they will pursue throughout their lives. But the traditional path from K-12 school, to post-secondary school, and ultimately to a long career at one job is becoming less and less common. Students need to be better informed of the options available to them for getting into as many opportunities as possible. Education providers, organizations and employers can assist students along their path from ‘cradle to career’ and as they make career decisions.  Laura Brennan, director of Texas OnCourse, and Victoria Chen, co-founder and executive director of BridgeYear, shared during an UpSkill Works forum held in December some of the tools, curricula and best practices they’ve developed and observed for boosting career awareness and career exploration among middle and high school students. Bryant Black, the Partnership’s director of regional workforce development, hosted the conversation.   Texas OnCourse supports students along the pathway from middle school to high school to success beyond high school. It was created by the Texas state legislature to improve college and career advising, and support students in critical decision-making around high school, college and career planning. It currently is an initiative of the University of Texas but will become part of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board in January 2021, where it will further the board’s mission of ensuring quality advising for students. Texas OnCourse provides career awareness curricula and tools to widen the scope of careers middle school students see or understand. It also helps teachers better support students along their path to college and career readiness. Its student-focused online tools include games and quizzes grounded in workforce data. Texas OnCourse has an online training platform (Texas OnCourse Academy) for advising professionals involved in guiding students to college and career success. It also has focused on how to help educators implement tools and share best practices across the state. Middle school is a critical time for students to explore careers as they prepare to select endorsements. It is a time when students usually form their career identities; by high school, students typically have gravitated towards one industry, Chen told the audience.  BridgeYear, an organization that connects underserved youth to careers and educational pathways that provide economic stability and independence, grew out of observations co-founders Victoria Chen and Victoria Doan made while working as high school college counselors at Sharpstown High School. Chen shared that many students had unrealistic expectations of the amount of education needed to start specific careers, limited knowledge of the breadth of career options in the economy, and little understanding of what individuals in given careers did day-to-day. BridgeYear takes a hands-on approach to career exploration. Through its Career Test Drive® fairs – before the COVID-19 pandemic led to limited building capacities and social distancing measures – students could try out the tools and skills needed for various careers in-person. This summer, BridgeYear re-imagined its fair model and created kits, which students and educators can order, that contain hands-on activities relating to two high-growth, in-demand careers. The test-drives, Chen said, give students “something tangible they can react to” as they consider whether a career option fits their interests. Chen and Brennan, a former high school advisor, discussed the importance of setting up college and career readiness as a unified idea in students’ minds because preparing for college and preparing for a career should not be an either/or decision. College and career readiness programs (and educational partners) seem to be at their best when educators are able to take the time and effort to understand the wants and needs of their students. Brennan has seen the greatest impact of Texas OnCourse’s work with district-level buy-in from the middle school curriculum to the high school counseling content, and when counselors, educators and school/district leadership are aligned towards clear goals around college and career readiness. “We’ve really been focused on how to encourage more systemic adoption [and] how to get everyone to create a more unified experience for that student who’s going through from middle school to the high school,” she said. “We’ve seen districts that have taken really innovative approaches to connecting the middle school educators and making sure that experience is seamless for students.” BridgeYear’s strongest school partners are those that have examined every type of student and every type of post-secondary goal their students have and know the suite of programs and services within their districts that can help their students achieve these goals. The schools that set up the most students for success after high school have a range of programs and interventions that might specialize in different aspects of college or career exploration.   “One program cannot fit all the needs of our students,” Chen said. But the work to bring students into the workforce and help them sustain successful careers does not stop when high school ends. Career exploration can be viewed as a lifelong journey – or continuum –beginning with career attraction at a young age, moving into training, placement and finally retention or advancement. Community colleges are premier providers of technical degrees and certifications, and skills development programs for many careers, but the full journey requires action and interventions from employers as well as educators. Click to expand Educators and employers have roles to play along the career continuum “We do a really good job pushing some students all the way through this continuum, and with some students we stop at career awareness. How can we get more students through, would be the question. That […] relies on employer partners. It does involve that next step. After the hands-on exploration is the preparation, the training stage, and that's something we can't do alone,” Chen said.   View all past UpSkill Works forums.
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Career information for job seekers, educators and partners.

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Video series introducing careers and the pathways to entry.

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Tool to match skills with careers in the petrochemical manufact...

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Additional Resources

Find reports and other information and resources tied to UpSkill Houston. 

This report highlights the disruption that greater automation and increased requirements for digital skills is causing for regional workers and the importance of helping workers build digital skills and identify career progressions for occupations that can lead to economic opportunity.

A recent labor market report underscores the long-term and critical role of middle-skill occupations in positioning the Houston region to be competitive in the 21st century and creating economic opportunity for its residents.

This series presents conversations with business and community leaders, policy makers, and leading thinkers on the key workforce issues confronting the Greater Houston region.

Business, education, and community organization leaders highlight how participating in the Greater Houston Partnership's UpSkill Houston initiative has strengthened workforce development efforts through collaborative action.

This labor market study highlights the prevalence and growth of middle-skill jobs within Greater Houston’s economy and analyzes how automation and increased digital skills are transforming the nature of work.

This video from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation shows how UpSkill is leading the way to close the skills gap using lessons learned in supply chain management.

UpSkill Houston's "My Life As" campaign provides stories of workers in high demand, growth opportunity careers.

By contributing to the Employer Champion Campaign, companies are setting Houston on a better path and improving the skilled workforce and economy for generations to come.

A comprehensive look at the work and results of UpSkill Houston.

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