Houston Business and Civic Leader aim to Close the Skills Gap

Ryan Holeywell | @RyanHoleywell | April 29, 2015

Houston business and civic leaders are aggressively promoting a plan to boost the local economy by taking steps to “close the skills gap” facing area workers.

New data shared this week by the Brookings Institution suggests the answers to how to do that might be close by.

The Washington, D.C.-based think tank says Lee College – the Baytown community college with an enrollment of about 7,000 – is one of the top schools in the country when it comes to providing value to its students.

The school offers training in a variety of trades and provides a pipeline of talent to the downstream energy sector. Energy companies like Exxon Mobil and Chevron Phillips Chemical have provided resources to the school, located about 20 miles east of downtown in an area close to many major refineries and chemical facilities.

Aside from its liberal arts program, Lee College’s most popular fields of study are instrumentation technology, chemical technology, business administration and nursing.

The school got such high marks from the think tank because of just how profound an education from the school can have on graduates’ earnings.

Brookings researchers looked at thousands of schools across the country and figured out how much money their students might be expected to earn, based on their demographics, test scores and other factors.

Then they found out how much money graduates actually earn. When graduates have higher salaries than might otherwise be expected, the thinking goes, that’s a sign that the school is providing a good value to its students.

In the case of Lee College, its students would have been expected to have mid-career earnings of $56,000 annually. Instead, they ended up earning 20 more than that – about $69,000.

That boost is so large that Brookings’ researchers named Lee College their second-ranked “value added” community college in the country. Essentially, that means Lee College students get more economic benefit from their education than students at almost any other community college in the country.

Brookings researchers touted their study – which looks at the value added of almost every two- and four-year school in the country — as a way of helping prospective students better analyze their options.

Typical college rankings, often popularized in the news media, do a better job of analyzing the quality of students at the time they were admitted than offering any insight about a school itself, said Brookings fellow Jonathan Rothwell in a conference call with journalists Wednesday.

“We think this offers an improved way to evaluate colleges and to learn which strategies are working and which are not,” Rothwell said.

Lee College might be a place Houston-area leaders want to examine closely. Its strategies, based on Brookings’ data, are working for students.

The study comes at a time when the benefits of college are greater than ever, yet rising tuition costs make access to secondary education a challenge for some students, Rothwell said. He argued that state and local leaders lack the data to tell them whether their local community and four-year colleges are teaching skills that are in-demand in their local workforce.

In Houston, there’s a growing recognition that offering training to fill “middle skills” jobs can strengthen the local economy and improve the earnings of residents. Learning those skills is widely-seen as a path towards the middle class that can be achieved without the crippling debt that can sometimes come with a four-year degree.

As the Chronicle’s L.M. Sixel wrote in November:

Someone who wants to work in petrochemical production, for example, can start out learning the basics of forklift operation, hand tools and repair and earn a median hourly wage of $10.74, according to a report released this week by JPMorgan Chase that addresses the skills mismatch in Houston.

After picking up more skills in such areas as blueprints, calibration and wiring – along with an associate’s degree – the median wage increases to $31.98 an hour.

From there, the next move up the career ladder would be to industrial production manager – which typically requires a four-year bachelor’s degree but pays a median hourly wage of $51.15 an hour.

The Greater Houston Partnership predicts the region will see nearly 75,000 “middle skills” jobs created annually. Those positions will require more than a high school degree but less than a bachelor’s degree. Today, those types of careers make up 40 percent of the region’s job market, according to the Houston Chronicle.

The striking results shown by Lee College show that it might be a place local leaders look to for answers.

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