UpSkill Houston: Working to Close the Skills Gap

Bryant-Black-300x300Bryant Black, Director of Workforce Development for Greater Houston Partnership, shares with Carmela Walker how the Greater Houston Partnership came to be and how they are focusing on closing the skills gap in Houston, Texas. CW: How did the Greater Houston Partnership form? BB: Originally, there was the Greater Houston Chamber of Commerce, along with other regional chambers throughout the greater Houston area and various other economic development organizations. At some point in the 80’s, there was a movement to bring them all together into a larger organization that could serve as an advocacy group for the city, through public policy and additional ways to make Houston the best place to live, work and play. This is how the GHP came into being. CW: What steps did the partnership take to grow as a complement to the workforce upskills initiative? BB: In June 2014, with the help of JP Morgan Chase, the Greater Houston Partnership created UpSkill Houston to close Houston’s skills gap by aligning collective efforts to pursue three fundamental objectives. JP Morgan recognized that an investment in people is necessary, so they ran a case study with a primary focus on Houston and what it would take for us to continue to grow at the pace we are on as our economy changes. The local resources that came from JP Morgan helped bring the industry partners together to form this task force. By convening the thought forum, executives as well as education members and the community became core constituents who met to talk about jobs and workforce issue. They knew that it was something we had to address. This is how Upskill took flight.  CW: What makes our position in Houston so unique? BB: What makes Houston unique? Well, first, our geographical positioning; the Port of Houston has more net tonnage than any other place in the country at the moment. It will be in the top three for port activity in pretty much any metric you use. Also, we have a good railroad system where multiple lines come together. In addition, there are other various sectors of the economy that make up the Houston region. Obviously, we have always been an energy and natural resources focused town relying heavily on energy, but we also have the largest medical center in the world positioned in our backyard. Having those two fields as dominant players in the industry, combined with manufacturing, has helped to grow Houston from more than just an oil and gas center over the years. So, those are the three core pieces, along with the infrastructure that make up the uniqueness of our economy in Texas and the U.S. CW: It seems like Upskill is more construction-driven than medical, transportation, or other industries. How did the partnership come to concentrate on specific industries? BB: I would not necessarily say it is the primary focus, but it is big part of what we do. I think it comes from the fact that any industry that has a significant capital investment will have construction and if you don’t have skilled labor or skilled craft workers in construction, you are not going to be able to do anything to develop a city, or the things that come along with the economic prosperity that is a part of a growing city and economy. And so, without construction, whether it be commercial, industrial, residential or civil, you’ll be in trouble. In the beginning, we were hearing more and more from our member organizations that they were having trouble attracting those workers, so construction has organically become a big part of UpSkill out of necessity. But we are also focused on petrochemical, transportation, logistics and healthcare as we continue to move forward with this initiative.    CW: Can we talk a bit about the growth expansion of the task force now? BB: The task force really identified four key challenges: One, job perceptions of skilled careers; two, soft skills within the workforce where everyone identified key trends in those areas; three, students who are entering the 18- to 22-year-old age bracket not always equipped to make that transition into the complexities of the Houston workforce or economic landscape. Finally, a lack of awareness by those potentially entering the workforce of exactly what opportunities are available to them in these fields. So together, equipped with data, we are gaining a better understanding around our workforce issues because of our complex and unique economy in the region.  CW: How has the program changed since 2014 and are the programs following the traditional in-school vocational training model? BB: In the early days, we wanted to make sure we had the right people at the table. Now, we have about 35 core champions on the employer side, 11 two-year colleges, as well as independent school districts in the area, where leaders have come together to address these issues. Our current model consists of a pilot program with four school districts: Houston, Alief, Aldine and Pasadena Independent school districts. As the program matures, we plan to expand to the other school districts by bringing marketing awareness to the region. In this space, the CTE, or career and technical education programs, are becoming more of a focus from Kindergarten through 12th grade, along with the passage of House Bill 5 through the state legislature, which mandates students choose a career endorsement. Signed five years ago, the first set of HB5 mandated students are just graduated from high school. So, we will start to see what some of those educational outcomes look like. It lets the student form their curriculum around what they have chosen as their career pathway and their endorsement from 8th grade forward. That is the new twist on K-12 education that we are trying to position ourselves to support as students gain knowledge and information to make those career decisions.  The initiative has also become a three-tiered process where we are about not only attracting students and marketing those craft career and training opportunities to them — we are also talking about craft skills with NCCER credentials and actual job placement. We are continuing to discover what it takes to put people in the roles that are associated with those trainings. In addition, we are working alongside our employers and two-year colleges to offer NCCER credentials so that workers’ training records are transferable as they move around between jobs and across industries. There is currently an initiative led by local employers to implement standardized performance measures to decrease onboarding times and increase the ability of a worker to have recognized experience wherever they go. CW: As workers segue into these positions, has your group found exponential growth within positions after the education training cohorts? Has the demand changed and what is the data on it? BB: Yes, it is always tough to quantify, but we are working on it now. I would say that the demand has shifted more than grown. So, there might be certain craft skills or certain sectors of the economy that maybe had more supply issues four years ago that have changed as our economy changes. We are always working to make sure that we are focused on what our industry partners and educators need as the shifts are taking place. We are attempting to ensure that our educators can train to these changes as students enter classrooms to match the crafts and align their talents with the overall changes in those industries.    CW: Facing the future, where does GHP see this initiative going especially with the population growth and transportation in Houston? What’s next? BB: As we improve on measuring our success and changes in the region, we will look at the ecosystem on a whole to identify where the bright spots are, troubled areas are and how it can help to shift some of those resources over time. We also have the help of our member constituency who can support and/or advocate for changes to policy and economic development in the region. We can also analyze more robust data to help build the picture and identify where changes need and how we can learn from areas that doing well. Houston has been growing rapidly, and geographically, we are looking at broad areas. For instance, someone in Aldine that has a job in Pasadena or someone in Alief that must work in Crosby would have to travel long distances, so there will always be a need for employment opportunities. Conversations are always happening within the partnership about transportation. This has been a testament to these partnerships, and one can see our different constituents coming together who have the same goals in mind to create solutions. We can bring the innovation with unique scenarios together to figure out what those will be in the future.

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Carmela Walker

As a passionate client advocate, Carmela Walker earned a Bachelor of Arts in Communications-Political Science from Howard University and a Master’s...

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