Impact Stories
July 13, 2022 – Future of Work

Strong employer leadership needed to upskill Americans

Strong employer leadership needed to upskill Americans

By Peter Beard

Houston and the Texas Gulf Coast region are a microcosm of the forces transforming U.S. regional economies. These forces have profound implications for a region’s ability to grow its economy and compete globally. 

The dynamic transformation from industrial economies to technology-enabled, knowledge, and innovation-based economies is accelerating the shift in the skills needs of employers. Two key factors support the growth and prosperity of Houston’s regional economy: the number of people working and increases in productivity. In addition, demographic shifts in the region will require investments in education and upskilling to ensure every person has the skills to compete in this new economy. 

Between 60 and 70 percent of current and future jobs will require education and skills beyond high school. We must anticipate and address key skills trends disrupting our workforce, particularly as more employers shift to skills-based hiring, including:

  • Artificial Intelligence (AI) and automation technologies are redefining work and affecting all jobs – creating new ones, augmenting certain roles, and automating others – and will require workers to have higher levels of digital and technology skills across industries and functions. 
  • Employers are placing higher premiums on the essential/non-cognitive skills like communication, teamwork, and critical thinking that are essential for baseline workplace success. 
  • Skills are becoming obsolete more quickly and will require routine on-the-job upskilling and reskilling of the existing workforce. 

Houston and Texas Gulf Coast businesses are also confronting two other challenges:

  • Approximately 1.3 million low-wage workers in the region likely don’t have the education and skills needed to succeed in this future economy – particularly if 60 to 70 percent of regional jobs will require education and skills beyond high school. These workers will need low-cost, convenient, and high-quality upskilling opportunities. 
  • Approximately 80,000 to 100,000 young adults in the region each year transition from high school into one of three pathways: the workforce or military, a community college, or a four-year college or university. These learners will need relevant education and skills beyond their high school diploma for this future economy.

The pace of skills change, demographic trends, and economic uncertainty will likely make it more challenging to solve talent shortages through traditional means. We will need more adaptable and agile approaches. Our community colleges will play important and indispensable roles in preparing this future workforce and the more immediate need of upskilling incumbent low-wage workers. Our ability to succeed will also depend on effective and strong employer leadership, engagement, and partnership to drive the innovation necessary to strengthen a virtuous cycle of economic growth and prosperity supported by education and skills development.

In 2014, the Greater Houston Partnership created UpSkill Houston as an employer-led, jobs-first initiative to address Houston’s skills gap challenges. UpSkill Houston is a collaboration between employers and business leaders, educational institutions, community-based social service providers, and the public workforce system that drives collective action to align and integrate efforts that improve the skills needed by employers. UpSkill Houston addresses institutional and structural barriers (information and data, resources, skills trends, etc.) that contribute to the skills gap of occupations that require education and skills beyond a high school diploma and less than a four-year bachelor’s degree. It is a team sport to build the talent pipelines for these occupations needed by the employers and industries in Houston’s regional economy. 

Employers lead this work because they are the subject matter experts on the critical occupations in their industries. They have direct and specific knowledge about occupational, digital, and technical skills needed for success. When aggregated for an industry, the information from the employers can ensure education, community, and workforce institutions guide and support individuals in developing skills to succeed. This collaboration provides optimal, integrated, and effective institutional responses to skills gaps. 

With improved coordination and alignment across multiple systems that develop our region’s talent, we can optimize and strengthen the supports and services individuals and adult learners require to improve their economic mobility and prosperity. For example, improved integration between community colleges (i.e., career and student services), community-based organizations (i.e., wraparound services and supports, ongoing client relationships), and workforce career offices (i.e., tuition and scholarships, childcare, etc.) can optimize the support individuals receive and strengthen educational and workforce outcomes. In the future, it will be important to support and provide incentives for educational institutions, public workforce career offices, and community-based organizations to co-locate and integrate services and supports to ensure there is long-term success of adult learners and students. 

In addition to championing employer leadership, UpSkill Houston focuses on ensuring students and adult learners can navigate a dynamic and changing labor market. Effective career coaching, counseling, and advising are essential to provide a strong user experience that supports the success of students and adult learners. An effective career counselor and/or navigator is essential for providing the encouragement that supports the student or adult learners as they navigate this journey; and a visualization or map of the pathways and steps for an individual helps them better navigate from where they are to their desired occupational destination. UpSkill Houston and United Way of Greater Houston have convened the first cohort of career coaches from across the region to augment professional training and strengthen coaching capabilities as part of a career coaching network and community of practice. 

Over the coming years, employers and institutions will need to operate at increased levels of urgency, speed, and agility. We will continue to foster innovation between employers and community colleges to develop and implement upskilling programs for incumbent workers, including a focus on transferable skills such as project management, data analytics, and core digital skills. This work requires an enabling infrastructure that can scale business and industry partnerships focused on building the skilled workforce employers. By using a common methodology, such as U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Talent Pipeline Management, we can align, integrate, and optimize our collective work to address the skills gap for the region’s industries.

Peter Beard serves as Senior Vice President for Regional Workforce Development at the Greater Houston Partnership, the Houston region’s principal business organization. He leads the Partnership’s UpSkill Houston initiative, which champions employer-led collective efforts that address the region’s skills gap and provide economic mobility and prosperity for the region’s residents.

This viewpoint is part of an ongoing series, Driving Transformation. In this series, we amplify the voices of a diverse group of scholars, nonprofit leaders, and advocates who offer unique perspectives on the intersection of work and learning.