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Houston’s Business Community Starts a Push to Promote the Middle Skills

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Originally published on Construction Citizen.

The Houston region, just like many other areas of the country, faces a paradox when it comes to matching people with the right jobs.  But the challenge in Houston is exacerbated in a way that other places would love.  There are so many jobs available that employers simply can’t keep up.  The Construction Citizen team has written many times about the skills gap that leads to a situation where there are simultaneously plenty of openings for “middle-skills” jobs while there are lots of unemployed and under-employed people.  Middle-skills jobs, by the way, are positions that require more training than a high school diploma, but less than a four-year degree from a university.

The Greater Houston Partnership, the area’s largest business group, recently put a focus on this portion of the workforce.  They’re now moving in this direction for a pretty straightforward reason: the one thing that could bring the region’s rapidly growing economy to a screeching halt is a lack of skilled workers, GHP President and CEO Bob Harvey told a crowd of about 300 gathered at the University of Houston last week.

Vice Chairman of the GHP, Gina Luna of JPMorgan Chase, said they’re taking “baby steps” to address the issue.  She and others believe it’s about time to start working on this in earnest.  “Forty percent of jobs in the Houston area are considered middle skilled,” Luna said.  Those include careers in energy, manufacturing, health care, construction and transportation, she said.  “These are respectable jobs,” Luna said, adding that folks across the region should be connected with these opportunities so they can support their families.

Luna said the workforce landscape presents several challenges and corresponding solutions.  There is a fundamental lack of awareness about these careers, Luna said, so the GHP will be working to raise the profile of this segment of the workforce.  Basic skills training needs to be made available, and better coordination between groups and companies that already offer such training is imperative, she said.  “We can do a better job by coordinating and sharing information among those groups,” Luna said.

Fred Dedrick, Executive Director of the National Fund for Workforce Solutions, said companies have not been as impressed with controversial economic incentives programs as they are with availability of skilled labor.

Focusing on “industry intelligence” is essential, Dedrick said.  Part of what he meant is that employers must sit down in the same room regularly and talk about what’s needed in the local labor force.  That can be a difficult task that is worth it in the long run, Dedrick said.  [In sessions like these,] “you found out about things that you never knew existed.  That information was incredibly important to helping us figure out what training to deliver,” Dedrick said of his experiences in running such programs on the East Coast.

The process of figuring out the needs of local employers is not about ideology; it is about figuring out what works in the real world, according to Dedrick.  Dedrick said it doesn’t matter if it’s easy to prod various executives to collaborate on these issues – it has to be done.  “Working together is going to have a greater impact than working individually,” he said.

Business leaders in Houston will need to embrace several concepts moving forward to maximize the impact of the Upskill Houston workforce development program.  Some of those include:

  • Closing the skills gap,
  • Driving economic growth,
  • Creation of a vibrant, robust labor market,
  • Promoting financial security for families,
  • Creating strategies for the under-employed,
  • Reaching out to people in neighborhoods that surround businesses to help them understand what jobs are available and what training is needed to be hired.

Meantime the Construction Citizen team just launched a Careers Section for Craft Professionals, a source of easily accessible information for those interested in getting started and for those already on their way toward a rewarding career as a construction craft professional with a middle-class lifestyle.

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