Business

Skilled Labor Shortage Continues In Houston, But Future May Look Brighter

The construction sector is one of several industries that need more middle-skilled workers.

For a while now, we’ve heard about the skilled labor shortage in the construction industry – especially here in Houston.

That’s despite construction winding down because of the oil downturn.

At Houston Community College’s Stafford campus, students were practicing their welding skills.

It’s part of the college’s construction trade program.

Omar Cardenas is taking a continued education class in welding technology. He said he’s worked welding jobs before but without a certification, many higher-paid jobs remained closed to him.
“Usually, I would walk in and ask for an interview, but since I didn’t have a certification, they wouldn’t even let me walk into the building,” he said. “But after my certification, it opened up a lot more doors for me.”

The skills he’s learned at HCC, he says, can make the difference between a $15- and $20- to $30-an-hour job.

Besides welding, the program teaches pipefitting, air conditioning technology, plumbing, electrical and computer-aided design.

Some of them are also taught in Spanish to include the many immigrants that are part of the construction workforce.

“We’re their last chance,” Tom Tynan, director of HCC’s construction trade program, said. “Some of them don’t have high school diplomas. They just have nowhere to go and when they come here, they have an opportunity.”

It’s a match made in heaven, because the construction industry is in desperate need of more skilled workers.

One reason for this is the perception of construction jobs as blue collar, hard and dirty work.

“There’s no arguing that being a welder is dirty and sweaty,” said Peter Beard, who oversees the Greater Houston Partnership’s UpSkill Houston program. “But they are also great opportunities for great careers.”

UpSkill Houston was launched in 2014 with the goal to connect industry, education and workers to fill the skilled labor shortage – not just in construction but in the petrochemical and healthcare industries for example.

Beard said in construction, one challenge is to train low-skill workers for higher-skill positions.

Last month, the Texas Masonry Council invited representatives from industry, government and education to discuss what to do about their labor shortage.

 “We have just experienced over the last 30 something odd years a steady decline in not just available labor but skilled labor,” Ben Wheaton, president of the TMC, said. “We have increased our wages substantially over the last five years and it’s just not enough to keep up with the demand.”

He said it’s important that construction trade is taught not only in community and technical colleges but also school districts.

“Getting students at ages 16, 17, 18 interested in going into the construction industry and understanding that this is a viable trade and a trade that can pay the bills and pay them well, too,” Wheaton said.

The Houston Independent School District is heeding the call.

At Barbara Jordan High School, students have all the resources for professions that require less than a four-year college degree.

Elnora Talbert with HISD’s career and technical education program said the recent change to the Texas education code that requires students to pick a career path in eighth grade helps.

If they pick a technical career, they can already earn certifications while they’re still in high school.

“It’s very important,” she said. “And I think that we are starting to see some really good results with our graduating seniors and the different certifications that they’ve obtained in these past few years.”

There’s also legislation under consideration in Austin that would bring technical trades back to the forefront in the state’s high schools.

Senate Bill 154 would create a pilot program to include workforce development specialists in schools.

“Someone who understands industry needs, someone who understands and has a great relationship with our industry partners,” Julian Alvarez, the Texas Workforce Commissioner representing labor, said. “And so this was just to complement the ISDs as they exist now and just being able to provide that person with that technical assistance.”

All together the efforts may mean more workers like Omar Cardenas will make a better living because they learned a new skill.

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Florian Martin

Florian Martin

Business Reporter

Florian Martin is currently the News 88.7 business reporter. Florian’s stories can frequently be heard on other public radio stations throughout Texas and on NPR nationwide. Some of them have earned him awards from Texas AP Broadcasters, the Houston Press Club, National Association of Real Estate Editors, and Public Radio...

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