Originally published in the Houston Chronicle, Tuesday, December 8th here.
During the summer, 22 Pasadena-area students in grades 6-9 took part in a weeklong camp where they learned to make parachutes, built electronic windmills, watched science demonstrations, took a field trip to a chemical plant and toured the Port of Houston by boat.
The camp was part of an ongoing initiative to introduce youths to the region’s manufacturing, petrochemical and maritime industries and inspire a future generation of skilled laborers.
Organizers hope such projects will highlight the importance of the Bay Area’s skilled labor work force, which is experiencing a shortage, especially in the petrochemical manufacturing industry and its support services.
“Our role is to get the message out there about the available careers, change the perception of industry jobs in people’s minds and make sure that students, parents, teachers and counselors know that (training) is affordable,” said Michelle Hundley, vice president of public affairs for the Economic Alliance. “You can go to a community college, earn a technical certificate in two years and have a career that pays you $80,000 to $100,000 within a year.”
Jobs are available
Those jobs, Hundley said, include positions for pipefitters, instrument technologists, process technologists, logistics professionals, welders, truck drivers, electricians and construction workers.
“Of course we still need engineers, lawyers and public relations people, but for the current needs of our industry, we need the people to build, operate and maintain industry facilities and those who can get goods across the docks and interstate and house them in warehouses,” she said.
When the Port of Houston was created in 1914, it was part of the livelihood of the region and drew many visitors from local communities, with mostly mom-and-pop businesses operating at the docks.
Over the years, as businesses grew into large corporations and national security concerns developed, a fence was erected and most people did not have an opportunity to see what goes on at the port, Hundley said.
“A lot of what you don’t see, you kind of forget about,” she said.
The region’s oil and gas industry, Hundley said, is providing more opportunities for jobs that many are not aware of. The jobs are good-paying, clean and most do not require four-year college degrees, she said.
“Some people still have the idea in their head of some guy that is oily and dirty,” she said. “What they don’t realize is that these are clean and very high-tech jobs. These are technologically driven opportunities. Quite frankly, you don’t have to go to a four-year college to make six figures.”
To get that message out, the Neighborhood Centers and the Economic Alliance partnered to form the Southeast Texas chapter of Dream It. Do It., a national nonprofit organization that works to build America’s skilled labor work force.
According to the national organization, 3.5 million skilled jobs need to be filled within a decade, and 84 percent of the nation’s manufacturers agree that a talent shortage exists for their industry.
Neighborhood Centers serves more than 600,000 low-income families and individuals every year through its 70 facilities around Harris County and operates a work-force development program. In a news release, the organization called the shortage of skilled workers in the region unprecedented.
Mike Lykes is the director of Neighborhood Initiatives at Neighborhood Centers and works with Hundley on Dream It. Do It.’s programing. He said a survey of the summer camp’s participants indicated that children were interested in learning more about the petrochemical manufacturing industry and its impact on the port. He hopes that working with the Economic Alliance and Dream It. Do It. will inspire school districts to get involved in camp programs aimed at introducing students to skilled labor industries.
“The students have a really good understanding of what to do on their end to get these types of jobs and what manufacturing really is,” Lykes said.
Industry rated highly
He said a survey conducted a few years ago indicated that 70 percent of parents thought that manufacturing was the most important industry for economic development of their regions but that only 30 percent of those surveyed indicated they wanted their kids to work in it. Lykes said that perception must be changed.
Dream It. Do It. Southeast Texas formed earlier this year and is working with school districts, work-force development organizations and community colleges across Brazoria, Chambers, Fort Bend, Galveston, Harris, Jefferson and Matagorda counties to get the word out about the availability of skilled jobs.
Hundley set up the partnership initiative as its own education foundation that can work independently of the Economic Alliance and the Neighborhood Centers to gain funding and grants to continue its outreach and develop additional programs. Dream It. Do It. will continue its current roster of initiatives, too.
In addition to creating the Youth Manufacturing Summer Camp, the local Dream It. Do It. chapter established an ambassador’s program to help students in the region understand the educational paths to obtain the skills that lead to jobs within the manufacturing, petrochemical and maritime industries.
The local chapter also created a job-shadowing program for school districts during which educators can learn about the various careers to better incorporate them into classroom lessons.
A speaker’s program was established to address what Hundley referred to as a gap in communication between potential employers and students, including adult students enrolled in GED and English as second language programs offered by Neighborhood Centers.
Experts visit students
“Professionals travel to education centers to speak directly with students in the student’s own environment,” Hundley said.
San Jacinto College is an active participant in the Dream It. Do It. initiative. The college brings young people on campus to learn about careers in the fields of science, technology and engineering, all of which includes manufacturing, said Allatia Harris, vice chancellor of strategic initiatives at San Jacinto College. The college also hosts informational sessions at area high schools to tout industry prospects.
“We held outreach sessions for students and their families at several high schools to spread the word about the opportunities in the petrochemical manufacturing industry,” she said.
San Jacinto expands
Harris said manufacturing is important to the Houston program.
To keep pace with the growth in manufacturing, San Jacinto is expanding its program offerings and holding classes seven days a week and at all hours of the day, including late at night.
Voters in the college district in November approved a bond referendum to fund a new petrochemical, engineering and technology facility. The center, Harris said, will enable the college to train workers with new equipment and technology.
The college is among several organizations that are partnering with the Dream It. Do It. Southeast Texas foundation.
Foundation board members include representatives from the Economic Alliance Houston Port Region, San Jacinto College, Lee College and BASF.
Board member Glenn Johnson, BASF’s manufacturing workforce development leader, said his company is excited at the opportunity to partner with Dream It. Do It.
“The mission and infrastructure are very closely aligned with our internal work-force development efforts and provide the perfect platform from which to broaden our reach with students,” he said. “Our investment here represents the first step in a dynamic partnership to ensure the continued growth of our industry.”
Dream It. Do It. Southeast Texas is still in the development phase and is seeking additional organizations and businesses to join the foundation.
For more information, visit www.dreamitdoitx.org.