Houston's workforce not ready for the future

The Houston Chronicle
March 28, 2013

By James Calaway

Great change is afoot in the global economy. As occupations and industry sectors constantly trade positions as the top producer of employment growth, the education, competencies, and skills required to do those jobs is ever-shifting as well.

Laid-off workers find that they must seek retraining, incumbent employees need to upgrade their skills, and today's youth are discovering that higher levels of education and training will be required to achieve success in a changing workforce.

Economists predict that by the end of this decade, most jobs that pay adequate wages will require at least some post-secondary education.

A recent report on workforce and education from Center for Houston's Future highlights the lack of readiness in our region, including ranking Houston 34th out of the 50 largest metropolitan areas for college degrees and 60th out of 75 cities in literacy.

The McKinsey Global Institute points out that "too few Americans who attend college and vocational schools choose fields of study that will give them the specific skills that employers are seeking."

Research by the Center for Houston's Future shows that the fastest growing jobs in our region, including engineers, nurses, accountants and educators, will face a shortage of more than 600,000 in the next several years.

All of this puts enormous pressure on the overall cradle-to-career system of education and workforce readiness. This is a burden that must be shared by the business community.

Pre-K-12 institutions need to equip students with the basic skills required to successfully navigate post-secondary academic requirements, and seek innovative ways to include marketable skills training into their curriculum.

The post-secondary setting for most of the students in our region is in a community college. Community colleges need to not only provide the capacity to support this surging enrollment, but also act as an affordable and effective path to complete an associate degree or begin a bachelor's degree.

Two- and four-year colleges must provide courses of study that appropriately meet the demands of the region's increasingly knowledge based-economy. Businesses must strategically identify what skills are needed for their current and future workforce and ensure effective mechanisms and structures to timely convey these needs to the education pipeline.

Whether it is more certified workers for advanced manufacturing technologies or more degreed professionals in science, technology, engineering and math, those in charge of preparing our residents for the workforce must know what specific skills business is looking for to effectively do their job.

Civic leaders must carefully select who is in charge of the governance of important institutions, and hold them accountable for delivery. Are the community representatives leading these institutions knowledgeable about the real needs and acting in the best interests of the students and the local economy that supports these institutions?

Not long ago, the Brookings Institution ranked the nation's 100 largest metropolitan areas in matching the needs of industry to the education of the population, and Houston placed 94th.

It is imperative to identify what actions the Houston region must take to re-engineer a fully functional alignment between our educational institutions and the needs of the workforce today and in the future.

What can we do to create a better understanding of the supply and demand dynamics in a rapidly evolving global economy? How do we create a region that is financially strong, and that addresses the increasing "haves and have-nots" problem that risks disrupting our current vigorous economy and the long-term fabric of our society? While we may not have all the answers, it's about time we start asking the questions and rolling up our sleeves to begin this task.

The recent Regional Scenarios Summit: Investing in a Skilled Workforce convened by Center for Houston's Future moved that dialogue forward.

We ask each of you - whether in business, early education, K-12, community or four-year colleges - to do your part as we create actionable strategies to keep our globally competitive region on a sustainable path for our future.

Calaway is chariman of the board of directors, Center for Houston's Future.