A low-income person in Houston is more likely to reach the top-20 percent of earners than in any other large Southern city. The Houston region has a diverse and growing economy, which looks less like the past—oil and its cousins—and more like the future’s knowledge-based industries. The region’s affordable housing and job growth drives a surging population, with a soon-to-be majority Latino population, and an aging, whiter workforce. However, Houston might soon face a collision between inequity, economic prosperity, and a fervent belief in small government. Latino and African-American young people, who will fill the jobs vacated by retiring whites, are far behind on every step between education and career. Those students depend on systems of public education that are dispersed and often strapped for resources.
“If Houston’s African-American and Latino young people are unable to succeed,” says Stephen Klineberg, director of the Kinder Institute at Rice University, “it is impossible to envision a prosperous future for the city as a whole.”
While oil still plays a critical economic role in the labor market those young people enter, with one in two jobs affected by energy prices, the city also has become a national leader in applied technology, construction, engineering, and health, according to an analysis by the Greater Houston Partnership, Houston’s Chamber of Commerce. That same analysis shows that non-energy related jobs have made up almost three in four new jobs over the last 30 years. To increase upward economic mobility, Houston will have to connect people to the growth industries and improve the quality of existing jobs.
One key to that connection is reimagining the role between employers and their communities. Tish Young McCutcheon, vice president of organizational planning and public affairs at United Way of Greenville County, is thinking about how to help employers make the shift from charitable donation to conscientious collaboration:
Though much larger than Greenville, Houston’s diverse employer base will have to make a similar shift. Some local partnerships are trying to help them do just that.
The Greater Houston Partnership, working with a wide range of partners, has launched UpSkill Houston, focused on closing the skills gap in key industries such as construction, health care, and manufacturing. UpSkill is focused on four primary areas: increasing awareness of middle-skills jobs, improving the pool of applicants for those jobs, coordinating the education, business, and social services sectors, and collecting better data on talent and job demand. The timing is right: between 2012 and 2017, due to an aging workforce and growing economy, Houston expects about 75,000 annual openings for middle-skill jobs. For leaders in the business community, filling those jobs will be critical to continued economic development. For leaders of training and community organizations, those jobs represent opportunities to help Houston’s low-income people find family-supporting careers. Organizers are confident that the initiative can begin to reframe success, making clear to young people and their families the value of technical skills and credentials and bringing together leaders within business, government, education, and the community. Houston’s business community is influential in setting public policy, and UpSkill has helped business leaders see the importance of the success of the education and training system.
Houston has lessons to teach the rest of the South—and the nation. In partnerships, Houston has brought many sectors to bear on the issues of economic mobility. Through applied research, the universities are playing an important role in shaping the community agenda. Through the Greater Houston Partnership and UpSkill Houston, the business community is helping to define the skills needed for tomorrow’s jobs. Various philanthropies, including the Houston Endowment and the United Way of Greater Houston, are investing funds in education and vigorously evaluating what works and what does not. Houston’s economic mobility in the middle of demographic shifts cannot be easily explained by any of these factors, but they’re worth watching.
This post is adapted from a profile written by Max Rose. You can read the full profile and to learn more about how Houston is working to build an infrastructure of opportunity for young people here.