Futureproofing: How a Commitment to Workers is Transforming Houston’s Economy

August 9, 2018

“Futureproofing” features U.S. businesses, big and small, investing in the workforce of tomorrow. Check out more at Forwardontalent.org.

Today, business is booming in Houston. The Texas city is a major player on the global economic stage and contributes to leading advancements in energy, petrochemicals, manufacturing, life sciences, and construction, among others.

But it wasn’t always this way.

The nation’s fourth largest city, Houston faced a significant skills gap across several key industries that drive its regional economy. Of Houston’s 3.6 million jobs, 1.4 million – or approximately 40 percent — are considered advanced technical and craft careers. Nationally, 46 percent of employers report difficulty filling jobs vital to economic stability and growth.

In order to stay globally competitive, Houston’s industries needed to attract, train, and hire workers into technical careers that require more than a high school diploma but less than a four-year college degree.

To address the skills gap, Greater Houston Partnership— a group of 1,200 companies in the 11 county Houston region—took on the responsibility of retraining workers and strengthening the talent pipeline.

Greater Houston Partnership established its UpSkill Houston initiative in 2014, an industry-led collaboration working with education and community stakeholders to strategically attract talent to high-demand careers in the region’s key industry sectors. The U.S. Chamber Foundation’s Talent Pipeline Management™ approach provided a framework, context, and sequence for the work that needed to be done to build this collaboration.

And it’s working. By engaging more than 75 employers and business leaders to champion and lead its work, UpSkill Houston has helped to train and place individuals into middle skills positions, leading to a boom in the region’s construction sector. Houston has seen 42 percent higher completion rates for degrees and technical training programs.

We spoke with Peter Beard, Greater Houston Partnership Senior Vice President, to discuss how UpSkill Houston is helping the region’s industries stay globally competitive and five lessons the group has learned along the journey. Here’s what he said.

Shift the Paradigm

“One of the big challenges we face is that our country has succeeded in convincing everyone—parents, students and employers—that the only pathway to success if a four-year college degree. Yet, we have a regional economy that requires essential economy jobs, occupations and careers that require work-based learning, occupations and careers that require two years of technical school, and occupations and careers that require four-year college, masters, professional, and doctorate degrees. So, to take on a focus on the great occupations and careers that require more than high school and less than four-years of college is challenging.”

“First, it runs against the societal norms and we get into conversations around four-year degrees are the gold standard and anything less limits opportunity. Yet, many of the jobs that require more than high school and less than four-years are challenging, rewarding, make a big difference in our world, use technology in new ways, AND pay very well—all the same qualities that people believe are only found in four-year degrees.

Take the First Step

“The wakeup call really came when the leadership of the Greater Houston Partnership and some of our bankers were hearing a pretty consistent refrain from companies that they could not find the skilled workers they required in order to grow and expand their businesses. In many cases, companies were indicating that they would not pursue business because of the lack of workforce. For example, construction companies are not bidding on contracts because they don’t have access to the workforce needed to provide a quality service—including on time and on budget delivery.”

Collaboration is Key

“The program is based on leadership by employers and business leaders. So, there has always been the concern about whether leaders would commit the time and resources to do the work to create a demand-driven workforce system. It requires a different type of leadership and behavior to work together collectively and to partner in new ways with educational institutions and community organizations. We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

It Won’t Happen Overnight

“The challenge is in the data and labor market information as a way to measure success. Because we are trying to help employers while changing the systems, the population-level data and information show little change in one, two or three years.”

“So, we have to rely on some indicators that movement is occurring, as well as qualitative information and prototype programs that suggest the beginning of a change in trajectory. We have to remind the key participants that this is going to take time to change the trajectory. And of course, everyone wants results today. Thus, the managing of expectations becomes the challenge in the sell.”

Small Wins Lead to Big Wins

“We support collective doing with a focus on meaningful challenges employers face and prototyping efforts. This helps to build small wins that can create momentum. This helps to start the change that then needs to be managed.”

Originally published on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce publication Free Enterprise.