March 4, 2020
A growing number of high schools in Texas — 63 to be exact — now include six-year academies providing students groundbreaking access to high-demand technology careers. Among them are Avalos P-Tech High School in Aldine, Pathways in Technology at Willowridge High School in Fort Bend and four other schools in the Houston area.
These Pathways in Technology Early College High Schools (P-TECH) are helping tens of thousands of students across the state graduate with a two-year degree or valuable industry credential paired with hands-on training.
This is just one example of the growing reality around the state that good jobs require education and training beyond high school, but they don’t necessarily require a four-year degree. This educational approach was codified in 2013, when the Legislature moved schools away from a one-size-fits-all model that said every student needed to earn a bachelor’s degree. That narrow focus on bachelor’s degrees had proven ineffective because many students could not afford or were not completing a four-year degree. At the same time, high-growth, high-paying jobs that required some postsecondary training but not a degree were going unfilled.
Significant progress has been made since that 2013 law, House Bill 5, was passed. But there is much more work ahead and it can often begin with innovative programs in high schools and carry over to two-year colleges.
Demand for middle-skills workers in Texas — especially in high-growth fields like technology and health care — continues to vastly outstrip the supply of talent. Middle-skill jobs, which require more than a high school degree but not a bachelor’s degree, account for 56 percent of our labor market, but only 42 percent of our workers are trained to that level. And demand is growing, with 50 percent of all job openings in Texas by 2024 estimated to be at the middle-skill level.
As Robert Kaplan, the President of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, recently told the Houston Chronicle that Texas could soon be at a competitive disadvantage if young people who grow up here do not receive the education they need to succeed. The key is to make lasting investments in education, including “a much more viable skills training option” in high schools, Kaplan said.
In other words, while providing students with better guidance about the many careers available to them is good for those students, it can also go a long way toward addressing the workforce and economic challenges looming over our state’s future.
Schools should continue to expand the personalized guidance and exploration required by House Bill 5. It is especially important to build capacity for more complete exploratory programs in middle schools.
But career readiness is not just about changing curriculum. It’s also about expanding ways students participate in hands-on learning that helps them discover, refine and leverage their talents. Partnerships will be essential to providing opportunities for career exploration and postsecondary training in high school.
The Dallas County Promise, a regional coalition of schools, colleges and nonprofits, launched last year with that idea in mind. The Promise, which provides scholarships and other support, focuses on reducing the mismatch between the fields local students pursue and the demand for talent for middle-skill jobs.
Upskill Houston, which provides information about career readiness and pathways, takes a similar approach to helping students see the potential of middle-skill jobs in oil and gas, advanced manufacturing and healthcare. In Austin, Eastside Memorial Early College High School has partnered with the College of Health Care Professions (CHCP) to allow students to take classes on campus and earn college credit while also gaining important hands-on experience in health care fields. Graduates are able to earn industry-recognized certificates in less than a year to prepare for immediate employment in a fast-growing sector.
As these innovative programs across Texas illustrate, educators and industry have taken major steps to help students better meet the changing demands of our economy. But there is more that can and should be done, starting in Houston, which has taken its own steps to improve career exposure for students. There are plenty of examples around the state to follow, such as the P-TECH academies in the region and elsewhere, but it’s important that local districts develop and implement initiatives that specifically work for their students and communities.
High school is now a place where lasting and fulfilling careers often begin. In a state where too many students have fallen through the cracks and where the gap between our economy and our workforce is threatening to widen, this is a welcome innovation that can solve some of our state’s most looming economic challenges while offering a brighter future to young Texans. We must keep pushing forward.
Straus of San Antonio is a former State Representative who served as Speaker of the Texas House from 2009 to 2019. He is the chairman of the Texas Forever Forward Political Action Committee.
Article originally published in the Houston Chronicle, March 4, 2020