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Education News

Industry Leaders Fear Middle-Skill Worker Shortage Could Stunt Houston’s Growth

Jobs that require technical training short of a college degree account for half of all Houston-area employment. Filling such jobs is getting tougher every year.


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Baytown Exxon Mobile plantConstruction at the Baytown Exxon Mobile plant


Middle-skill jobs — those that require education beyond a high school diploma, but short of a four-year college degree — account for nearly half of Houston-area employment. Business leaders are growing increasingly concerned as the demand for middle-skill workers races ahead of supply.

The petrochemical industry is planning roughly $80 billion worth of construction along the Texas Gulf Coast. A study released this week by JPMorgan Chase estimates these projects will generate nearly 80,000 middle-skill jobs for Greater Houston through 2017. Gina Luna, the bank’s chair for the Houston area, says the shortage of workers to fill such jobs is growing critical.

“If the workforce is not available to build those facilities and then to appropriately run them,” Luna says, “the companies that are making those decisions about where to put them will either A) put them somewhere else or B) have to delay the building of those projects.”

Manufacturing and construction workers aren’t the only ones in low supply. The shortfall is also hitting the healthcare sector and ports. It’s expected to worsen in the coming years as more and more of the baby boomers retire. Many companies are offering higher wages to attract such workers from out of state. But most see this as a stopgap. A solution depends on training more such workers locally.

“We’re recommending that educators be very sensitive to and solicitous of businesspeople,” says Joe Fuller, a professor at Harvard Business School. “That’s not always a natural or comfortable stance for them. But businesspeople have the currency that’s most important in the middle-skills job market, which is they have jobs to offer.”

Earlier this week, Fuller delivered the keynote speech at a daylong conference, hosted by the Greater Houston Partnership. The aim was to bring together industry leaders and educators to explore how to make middle-skill jobs more attractive to Houston students.

Fuller says American manufacturers are at a disadvantage to their European competitors when it comes to recruiting for middle-skill jobs. Many European countries begin steering students toward such careers in their early high school years.

“Students are directed toward more vocational education or higher-level education based on the education system’s evaluation of their capabilities and aptitudes,” he says.

Texas recently took a step closer to the European approach. Last year, lawmakers passed HB5, overhauling the state’s secondary education system. Incoming freshmen are required to select an “endorsement,” effectively, a high school major, which could put them on the path to either a college or a vocational school. The first graduates of the new program will enter the workforce by the end of the decade.

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Andrew Schneider

Andrew Schneider

Politics and Government Reporter

Andrew heads Houston Public Media's coverage of national, state, and local elections. He also reports on major policy issues before the Texas Legislature and county and city governments across Greater Houston. Before taking up his current post, Andrew spent five years as Houston Public Media's business reporter, covering the oil...

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