Houston is growing, and with that growth comes jobs. More jobs mean a stronger economy. But as employers have a difficult time finding qualified, skilled workers, San Jacinto College steps in offering affordable training for the hard-to-fill middle-skills jobs.
San Jacinto College is working with UpSkill Houston, an industry-led workforce development program launched earlier this month by the Greater Houston Partnership (GHP) aimed at filling the need for skilled workers in the Gulf Coast region. It is a blue print for leaders across the board – in the business community, at educational institutions, and within social service organizations – to build a quality workforce that meets employers’ needs. The initiative is supported by a $250,000 grant from JPMorgan Chase, the largest ever private-sector effort aimed at addressing the skills gap.
“Forbes magazine recently named Houston as the top city in America for manufacturing jobs, proving how critical it is that industry have the skilled workforce it needs,” said San Jacinto College Chancellor Dr. Brenda Hellyer, who is a member of the Greater Houston Partnership Regional Workforce Development Task Force (RWDTF), the group responsible for the development of the UpSkill Houston program. “However, the need is not just in manufacturing. There is a need for skilled workers in other industries as well, including health care, maritime, and construction. At San Jacinto College we work closely with all of our industry partners to provide the programs and training they need to fill hundreds of available positions.”
Middle skills jobs – skilled trade, drivers, mechanics, and technicians – require more than a high school diploma, but less than a four-year degree, according to the Greater Houston Partnership’s “Addressing Houston’s Middle-Skills Job Challenge” report, developed by the RWDTF. Of Houston’s 3.6 million total jobs, 1.4 million are considered middle skills, representing 41 percent of all jobs in the Houston region. Those middle skills jobs are spread out across 348 occupations.
Collaboration is key
Part of the UpSkill Houston approach includes data sharing between employers and educational institutions such as San Jacinto College, so that program and course design and implementation can match hiring needs. The program also calls for stronger networks between education and training providers to provide a region-wide, comprehensive, and collaborative network to interface with industry partners.
As a direct result of training needs from the maritime industry, San Jacinto College was quick to respond in launching a maritime training program nearly four years ago. The College worked directly with maritime industry leaders to develop the program, in conjunction with training for incumbent workers. To date, San Jacinto College has trained nearly 2,500 workers, resulting in United States Coast Guard professional certification, and introduced a maritime technology degree program with 17 students currently working as interns aboard vessels for companies in Houston.
“Houston has a large port, yet before now, we didn’t have a lot of educational opportunities for people who wanted to enter the business or for professional certificate upgrades,” said Gordie Keenan, vice president of training and credentialing at Higman Marine Services. “We had been sending our employees to Alabama, but since the opening of the San Jacinto College maritime program, we have probably easily saved $80,000 a year by training here locally.”
The Houston region is expected to have 297,000 openings in middle-skills occupations between 2014 and 2017, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Nationally, that number is much higher, nearly 600,000 in the manufacturing sector alone. Middle-skills are generally the most difficult jobs to fill due to the lack of technical and workplace competencies. Hence, the skills gap.
Earlier this year, JP Morgan Chase donated $100,000 to San Jacinto College for the Great Jobs=Great Careers=Your Future grant, to fund a pilot program at four local high schools that educates students, families, and school counselors about the high-wage / high-demand jobs in the manufacturing industry. With the goal of enrolling 150 students this Fall, this program is the first of its kind that is both “practical and game-changing,” according to Carolyn Watson, relationship manager for Global Philanthropy with Chase Bank.
Partnerships such as the one between San Jacinto College and JP Morgan Chase further support the need for collaboration among industry and education. “The middle-skills challenge is incredibly complex, involving many moving parts and players throughout the system,” said Bob Harvey, President and CEO of Greater Houston Partnership. “The UpSkill Houston program demands a collaborative effort involving stakeholders from across our region to succeed.”
The GHP Regional Workforce Development Taskforce consists of 79 members, representing industry, education, and social services. Each plays an important role in closing the skills gap. In a July 2013 survey of the GHP Regional Workforce Development Task Force members, 77 percent cited alignment of industry needs and training resources as one of Houston’s greatest workforce challenges, and 81 percent said graduating a sufficient supply of skilled workers locally was also a challenge. These challenges make collaboration across the region and within the sectors even more important.
More than manufacturing
The UpSkill Houston initiative is about more than training middle-skills workers in the manufacturing, energy, and oil and gas fields. Because the training and hiring needs vary greatly by industry, the RWDTF recommended the sector councils address the gaps in seven different areas – advanced manufacturing, construction, health care, oil and gas (upstream and midstream) petrochemical, ports and maritime, and utilities. These sector councils will bring together experts and primary decision makers in each of these areas to identify each industry’s critical occupations and ensure that the region’s training programs and capacity can meet the demand for workers.
One of the challenges facing the Houston region is an oversupply of graduates for some occupations, and an undersupply for others. This is evident in the health care industry, where graduates are more likely to be in fields related to health information management, medical billing, and medical assistants. Yet, the fields of licensed vocational nursing (LVN), pharmacy technicians, dental hygienist, and nursing aids are in high demand.
“UpSkill Houston is directly aligned with the workforce education priorities that are at the heart of the work that we, at San Jacinto College, are committed to every day,” added Dr. Hellyer. “UpSkill Houston will change the lives of people in our region. It will target skilled workers needed for critical jobs and successful careers in our region, and will ensure a skilled workforce so that business and industry will continue to create jobs and grow our regional economy.”