The pandemic disrupted kids’ education. It also forced innovation.
That may be the biggest take-away from Partnership Lake Houston’s annual Workforce and Education Luncheon held virtually Sept. 21.
“The fact that we are meeting virtually,” said Texas Workforce Commissioner Aaron Demerson shows that Texas employers managed the pandemic the Texas way, by being nimble and flexible.
The partnership’s workforce and education panel, however, had a warning for employers as they attempt to fill those empty slots in their businesses.
“Employers come to us ready to hire but the kids are already spoken for,” warned Dr. Ken Tidwell, dean for workforce development at San Jacinto College. “An employer simply can’t wait for the perfect, unencumbered candidate. Students are employed by the time they are certified.”
Larkin Le Sueur, the director of career and technical education (CTE) for Humble ISD, said students are not waiting to make career decisions as they graduate from high school.
“At Humble ISD, students are exposed to CTE programs now in the 6th grade,” said Le Sueur. “We are helping kids experiment early in what they may be interested in so they can dive in.”
Internships in junior and senior high school are especially helpful to students in helping them determine their eventual career, Le Sueur said, “ … creating a strong pipeline to the employers who need those skills.”
The best — and most visual description — of training the Texas workforce came from Tidwell.
“I think of education as food,” he said explaining, “we have programs that are microwave-type. Short to prepare. Get them (the students) out. Then we have stovetop programs and that take longer. I think of those as degrees. I am in the microwave space. I am short term.”
People need a job and the San Jacinto programs get them ready in six or eight weeks, he said.
“I don’t get involved in the academic programs and degrees,” Tidwell said. “I focus on the credentials and trainings that lead to state license … applied trades, industrial maintenance, electrical training, scaffolding … health occupations like CNA and phlebotomy, for example.”
Area hospitals recently asked San Jacinto College to take a different look at trainings the college is offering “and we try to be nimble to respond to their needs.,” he said.
In response to a question about how things have changed in the last five years, Tidwell said he sees two definite changes — who he is working with and how classes and trainings are offered.
A few years ago, Tidwell said he was solely focused on employers and how to train their new or current employees.
“We still see that, but we definitely have seen a shift to individuals wanting to get into training programs,” he said. “Also, virtual training has become more normalized. Hands on will still be important. I don’t want a virtual phlebotomist but someone who has practice sticking arms.”
The hands-on tasks will remain, but Tidwell said colleges must become more flexible in how they are offered.
“Years ago, if you mentioned telemedicine, you probably would have gotten ‘a what?’” said Dr. Destry Doakes, executive director of San Jacinto College’s just-opened Generation Park campus. “Today, it is very prominent. It is amazing how things have changed. The way we used to see things isn’t the way anymore.”
Dokes recommended that educators and employers keep an open mind and look at what is offered and where workforce wants to go, then step back and look at the technologies associated with where the workforce wants to go, making sure that colleges mirror the technology the students have chosen.
The health science fields were challenged when hospitals closed to visitors. Hospitals are the training grounds for students, recalled Dr. Melissa Gonzalez, president of Lone Star College Kingwood. Lone Star relied on simulation rooms and dummies to coach the students.
“We have one dummy that actually gives birth,” Gonzalez said, “It is amazing, but we’ve got to have students practice when the possibilities are not there to do it live.”
Le Sueur would like to see a shift in parent perception about career and technical education.
“We aren’t just training kids to think critically, but to apply that thinking to their actual career path or a marketable skill that will get them a job,” he said. “Students don’t just sample different programs here and there. They approach it like college majors at the high school level. We call these programs of study.”
Le Sueur also predicted internships and pre-apprenticeships will expand at the high school level because they create a strong pipeline to the workforce.
How can employees prepare for the new workforce, emcee Jenna Armstrong asked?
Dokes and Gonzalez both emphasized that they do not tell employers what they offer. They listen to what the employers need.
“We listen to the employer and figure out what is stopping them from being where the want to be,” said Dokes. “And how can we fill that gap. We can, first, understand where they are coming from and, second, find a customizable way to meet their needs.”
Gonzalez described two programs Lone Star customized for industry — an acute care program for Houston Methodist hospital employees, and another for the 1,100 employees of Goodman Global Manufacturing.
“If a company wants something specific, they just need to tell us, and we can provide it. Develop new programs, new skills, that employers need so that students can get hired,” she said. “We are just a phone call away.”
Both colleges emphasized their training programs are for small businesses, too.
“We do have funds available to train your current employees to upskill or re-skill,” Gonzalez said. “We can train employees in a restaurant, for example, to learn the near post-COVID skills. And we have funds to customize their curriculum.”
Le Seuer praised the partnership as one of the best ways to connect with small businesses.
“Connecting with small businesses through the partnership gives us the opportunity to talk about what businesses are needing and what we are doing, too,” he said. “The system works when we are involved.”
Le Seuer described a survey underway through the partnership’s Leadership Lake Houston Alumni group outlining opportunities businesses have partnering with the school district and supporting CTE students through internships.
“The partnership is a great place to start for businesses who don’t know how to start,” he said.
As employers search for employees, Demerson suggested employers focus on veterans, people with disabilities, adult kids who are transitioning out of foster care, and hiring the interns.
“These are all potential employees who have something to offer an employer,” Demerson said.
The entire workforce and education panel discussion can be viewed on the partnership’s Facebook page, Facebook.com/PartnershpLH. Future events and reservations, lakehouston.org.