A Sustainable Workforce Starts With You

Businesses Need to Think Long-Term, Invest in Low-Income Youth

The following article by Nory Angel, executive director of SER-Jobs for Progress, was originally published in the Houston Chronicle.  Reprinted with permission.

The Greater Houston Partnership recently launched UPSkill Houston: a much-needed initiative to address the worker shortage this region is facing.  At a time when baby boomers are reaching the age of retirement and our local economy is heating up, this is creating a perfect storm of opportunity for our local workforce.  Unfortunately, our region's workforce is not yet positioned to meet this challenge.

Through my work at SER-Jobs for Progress – a community-based nonprofit agency which for the past 50 years has focused on developing low-income, minority workers for in-demand jobs – it has become evident that until we address certain systemic and individual issues head-on, our region will continue to flounder in our efforts to have a well-aligned worker pipeline.

Our region has a full-blown crisis in terms of foundational ability.  It's hard to teach students to weld when they struggle to read the manual or do basic math.  For example, the ability to do fractions and multiplication is often missing, and yet this is a basic requirement for many skilled trades.

To quote the common phrase, “We cannot import our way out of this problem.”  We must begin to cultivate a skilled workforce locally.  That begins by addressing the gaps in basic, foundational skills that disproportionately exist in low-income, minority communities.  An investment in our local workforce will be critical, and a concerted effort like the one proposed by the Greater Houston Partnership will be crucial.

The future of our region is directly tied to how well we prepare Latino and African-American youth with the skills needed for the workforce, and how well we connect them with these middle-skill job opportunities.  Nearly 50 percent of Houston's youth under 18 years of age are Latino.  Their readiness to enter the workforce will dictate our region's ability to continue to grow, create jobs and prosper – not in 20 years, but in 10.

Through my work, I see low-income Latino and African American youth dropping out of school or graduating from high school sorely lacking the math and reading skills required for entering certificate and associate degree programs that lead to these well-paying, middle-skill jobs.  In speaking with young people, it is apparent that there is a huge disconnect between what is taught in school and the material's application to jobs.

I recently participated in a dialogue between high school students and industry representatives of companies located in the East End [of Houston].  The message from the students was clear, “We are not being prepared for the world, just for life in school.”  How do we create a workforce pipeline that begins while students are still in school and directly connects them to the possibilities that exist in our region?  How do we bring true context to the learning so that math and reading come to life and are connected directly to viable careers?  How do we prepare them for the realities of the workforce; i.e. interpersonal and work readiness skills that are just as valuable as the hard skills?

A multi-pronged approach is needed to address this challenge.

For one, we must make every opportunity available for quality early childhood education programs such as Head Start, which prepares low-income children to enter the school ready to learn.  Once in school, there needs to be a focus on the foundational skills of reading, writing and math that goes beyond teaching to a test.

For students who struggle within this system, community learning centers – housed in neighborhood schools – are needed where the entire family can access educational support such as tutoring or access to technology and counselors who can help guide the family and the young learner.

Once students near high school, exposing them to real-world workforce possibilities is paramount.  Internships, paid work experiences, summer jobs and on-the-job training opportunities are tried and tested methods for preparing people for work.  These opportunities also have the intrinsic value of planting the seeds of possibility in a young person's mind.

Businesses contending with skilled-labor shortages will have to think long-term and begin investing in our region's low-income youth by creating these types of opportunities for high school students and disconnected, out-of-school youth.  Businesses will need to see themselves as investors and partners in this system and work alongside community-service providers to ensure that all sectors of our workforce are prepared.

For our region to continue on a prosperous path, where businesses can flourish and all residents, regardless of ZIP code or ethnicity, can participate in the economic mainstream, we need an integrated model that supports the individual throughout the learning and skill-building process and emphasizes the importance of foundational abilities.  This means leveraging resources, connecting place-based community agencies, aligning the education and community college systems and utilizing a sector-based approach that partners with our regions' businesses.

Add new comment