Peter Beard, the Greater Houston Partnership’s senior vice president for Regional Workforce Development, leads the Partnership’s UpSkill Houston initiative. Beard recently hosted a roundtable of representatives from the various sectors participating in UpSkill Houston – industry, K-12, higher education, and community development. HD Chambers, superintendent of schools for Alief Independent School District, participated in the roundtable. His comments are excerpted below. Originally published on Houston.org.
BEARD: What advice would you give superintendents considering participation in UpSkill Houston?
CHAMBERS: I tell my peers, if you’re committed to providing an opportunity and a pathway for every one of your graduates, starting at pre-K and going through 12th grade, then UpSkill Houston is an opportunity to get in the room with people who can actually help you make that happen. Upskill Houston provides an opportunity to meet with the right people and talk about your district’s needs and how everyone can assist in helping. At that point, it is up to you. UpSkill Houston can only do so much. The people in the room can only do so much. Then it becomes incumbent on us, in our roles as superintendents, to take advantage of that.
Can you share an example of students benefitting from Alief ISD’s engagement with industry?
Through UpSkill Houston, I’ve met individuals from many industry sectors in positions ranging from CEO to HR representative to economic development specialist. In one particular case, I met executives from Group 1 Automotive.
One of the things that was apparent when we brought Group 1 in to visit with kids in our state-of-the-art auto tech program in our Center for Advanced careers was that, much like a hospital where doctors probably make up the smallest percentage of the employees, mechanics/service technicians make up a small percentage of the employees in the auto industry. There are IT experts, engineers, office staff, marketing staff, and every role found in any other business. Many of our students are going into auto tech careers thinking they could only be a service technician, when, for example, they could apply their IT interests within the auto industry. Group 1 was able to expose these possibilities to our students. None of that happens if the only partnership we have is with a car dealership in our community.
Are there other ways in which industry is helping to broaden students’ perspectives?
You can ask any parents of young children, “Would you be okay if your son or your daughter is an electrician when he or she grows up?” Most of them will say, “No. I would prefer that my child to go to college, earn a degree and work in an environment I believe is more “’prestigious.’” However, if you ask them what they think about the electrical industry or the manufacturing industry, they’ll tell you it’s very noble and that it is important that people fill those roles in the workforce. They just don’t want their child to be a part of those industries.
The reality of the situation is that businesses involved in UpSkill Houston are creating highly compensated career opportunities that require some education beyond high school but not necessarily a four-year degree. We must all remove the stigma that some in our society place on certain types of careers. Not only is it noble to go into those industries, it’s very profitable. That’s where the demand is and that’s where the money is.
What has been the most important difference in how your school district has been working with industry recently?
Of all the things the K-12 education side has gained being involved in Upskill Houston, the collaboration with the higher education and the workforce leaders across Houston has been the most valuable and has made the greatest difference. We (public schools, colleges, and employers) are learning from each other. For as long as I’ve been in education, we’ve operated in silos. There is the K-12 silo, the higher education silo, and the workforce silo. Rarely did any of us have meaningful and productive conversations about addressing our economies workforce needs. In terms of working with business to understand what K-12 needs to do to prepare the type of future employee business wants in an industry sector, this is the first organized opportunity for that to happen. So, from the K-12 perspective, UpSkill Houston been absolutely critical in removing barriers that typically kept us from working together.
How would you assess the value of continued collaboration among business, higher ed, nonprofits, and K-12?
If the next five years are as productive as the first five years and the conversations and actions we have seen so far continue to grow, then I’m extremely optimistic. In Alief ISD, students are graduating with associate degrees before receiving their high school diploma, they are graduating with a meaningful workforce credential or certification in multiple areas, and they are being exposed to real workplace experiences. This is just the tip of the iceberg. Because of Upskill Houston and the people in the room, I think the trajectory for the Houston economy is extremely high. I am sitting in Alief ISD watching my students' lives change because of efforts like this.
This is one of a series of four Q&As with executives who participated in a roundtable hosted by UpSkill Houston. Don’t miss insights from executives from business, higher ed, and community development, also available online.