Help wanted, good pay: Houston needs middle-skill workers

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by DOUG MILLER

KHOU

Posted on June 24, 2014 at 8:01 AM

HOUSTON – Alongside the Houston Ship Channel sits Southwest Shipyard, a third-generation family owned business that’s thrived for more than a half-century.

About 700 people hold down good jobs there repairing barges and tugboats, the classic blue collar work that’s long been the backbone of the Houston area’s economy.

“Business is very good right now,” said Martin De Camp, the company’s chief financial officer and executive vice president. “Our biggest inhibitor growth is the ability to hire labor.”

His biggest problem is hiring welders. Come to think of it, if you’re a welder and you’re looking for work, DeCamp’s got a deal for you.

His company’s offering what amounts to on-the-job training, health insurance, plenty of overtime pay and a 401K plan with matching contributions. But he still can’t find enough welders.

“We can’t,” he said. “In fact, I could hire in this yard alone, 25 welders, and have them working within the week. In one of our other yards, in Channelview, we’re doing a major facility expansion and I need a hundred people by this time next year.”

Shades of the early 80s, when Houston’s explosive economy created so many jobs the city didn’t have enough people to fill them. Trucks loaded with Sunday newspapers drove cross-country carrying wanted ads to desperate Detroiters hoping to find work in Houston.

Today the labor crisis is more specific. Employers can’t find workers to fill what they’re calling “middle skill” jobs that don’t necessarily require college degrees — everything from pipe fitters to engineering technicians to nurses' assistants – but still pay substantial middle class wages in the range of $50,000 to $70,000 a year.

“There’s a lot of people who don’t know that these great jobs exist,” said Gina Luna, vice chairman of the Greater Houston Partnership and chairman of JPMorgan Chase in Houston. “Or they may have a negative perception of what these jobs are.”

The labor crunch is so severe that business leaders gathered in the local Federal Reserve headquarters Monday to unveil a program designed to train Houston workers to fill an estimated 296,000 new middle-skill jobs in the next three years.

The Greater Houston Partnership, the city’s leading economic development group, dubbed the effort “UpSkill Houston.” JPMorgan Chase committed $5,000,000 to workforce training, including a $500,000 grant to Lone Star College for expanding education opportunities for people who now have low-skill and low-paying jobs.

“We need middle-skilled workers,” said Bob Harvey, the Greater Houston Partnership’s president and CEO. “And that means getting people interested in those careers that are well paying that do require training beyond high school. We need to get people interested in those jobs again.”

The challenge sounds like as much a marketing problem as an educational problem. Generations of Americans have accepted as gospel the notion that a college degree was an essential prerequisite for establishing a good career and a earning a middle-class income.

“For many years, we made it sound like the only path to success was a four year college degree,” Harvey said. “And in reality, there are great, great careers. You can have success with much less than a four year degree.”

The UpSkill Houston plan includes a public relations campaign designed to improve the image of high-paying middle-skill jobs. It’s also supposed to improve communication between employers and colleges in an effort to match curricula taught in classes to the needs of employers.

“The problem is the result of our success,” Harvey said. “I tell people that all the time. But it’s still a problem. If you don’t fill the jobs, the growth will stop.”

Southwest Shipyard has already tackled the problem on its own. It’s hiring welders straight out of school, paying senior workers to stay late in the evening and conduct training sessions for newcomers.

“We’re losing people almost as fast as we get them because it’s a cat fight for the labor,” DeCamp said. “You know, it’s a great time to be a blue collar worker.”

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