November 12, 2014
By Doug Miller, KHOU 11 News
Inside a noisy manufacturing shop in Spring, Omar Gonzalez works as a machinist.
Welding torches spew sparks around the open air facility near Hooks Airport, where Texas Advanced Manufacturing Solutions makes everything from oil rig parts to a staircase for a church.
Gonzales makes enough money to support a family with three children, an impressive feat for an immigrant from Mexico who moved to Houston with the equivalent of a junior high school education.
"I didn't have very much," Gonzales said. "I knew about tools. I knew about drawings."
But he knew enough to sign up for classes at Lone Star College, which qualified him for a supervisory job in a field that has employers clamoring for workers.
Houston suffers from a severe shortage of so-called middle-skill workers, people like welders and machinists doing jobs that don't require college degrees but nonetheless pay good salaries and benefits. For example, petrochemical workers in their 20's fresh out of two-year programs are routinely taking home more than $100,000 a year.
Employers face such serious recruiting problems, business leaders earlier this year launched a program called UpSkill Houston designed to drive more workers into those middle-skill jobs. JPMorgan Chase, which has committed $5-million to workforce training Houston, just issued a Houston Skills Gap Report estimating the area already has roughly 1.4-million middle-skill jobs and predicting it will add 74,000 new middle-skill jobs a year between now and 2017.
Driving much of the demand is a projected explosion of construction in the petrochemical industry. An estimated $80-billion is expected to be spent on more than 120 petrochemical facilities around the Houston Ship Channel in the next few years, leaving industry leaders worried about where they'll find enough qualified workers.
Meanwhile, a startling number of Houstonians haven't even obtained the most basic level of formal education. About 21% of Houstonians over the age of 25 don't even have a high school diploma or a GED, the report says. Among Hispanic Houstonians, the city's fastest growing ethnic group, that figure hits 47%.
"Houston is such a melting pot that people from all over the country, and then from outside the country, are coming into our city," said H.D. Chambers, the superintendent of the Alief ISD. "And many of them don't have a high school education."
But many of the middle-skill jobs going begging in Houston don't necessarily require a high-school diploma. Even without the most basic sheepskin, people interested in breaking into better jobs can attend classes and obtain certifications from local schools like the Lone Star College.
"That's the good thing about our programs is that we're actually focusing on people who don't have high school diplomas or GEDs," said Nadia Nazarenko, the Lone Star College System's executive director of college preparation programs.
And in many cases, employers and government grants underwrite much of the cost of training those workers.
"One of the first things you need to do is find excellent sources of formal education close to where you are," said Fernando Sanchez-Arias, corporate director at Texas Advanced Manufacturing Solutions, where Gonzalez works. "And you don't have to have any type of degree to access this type of education program. They're very technical programs where you learn how to have a skill."
"Those workforce certificates can be a real door opener to people who are now working two and three jobs making minimum wage," said Carolyn Watson of the JPMorgan Chase Foundation.
Just ask Omar Gonzalez, who at age 35 plans to pursue a degree in engineering.
"There is a lesson behind this I want to teach my kids," he said. "That is, you're never too old to learn something new."