Upskilling a Workforce for North Texas’ Robust Economy

Dave Moore, Data Journalist and Staff Writer

Roughly 800,000 jobs have been created in the Dallas Region over the past 10 years, leading companies to cannibalize each other for talent. One solution – according to panelists who gathered at the Dallas Regional Chamber on Aug. 14 – is to grow the skills of the region’s workforce of 3.8 million people.

More than 85 educational and community leaders attended the DRC’s fall Education to Employment Outlook series event, where they heard a panel discuss strategies for improving the job skills of workers and students who are entering the region’s booming workforce. The forum occurred at the DRC’s office in Downtown Dallas.

“Between now and 2030, it is projected that 60 percent of all new jobs will happen in just 25 cities,” said Drexell Owusu, Senior Vice President of the DRC’s Education & Workforce team. “Dallas – having led the nation and job growth – will probably continue to lead the nation in job growth. We know this need is incredibly acute. We also know it will be sustained for a long period of time.”

A key strategy employed by nonprofits – GenerationMerit AmericaPer Scholas, and Year Up – is to enroll students in intense technical and professional training programs to meet growing employer needs. Some upskilling can be as rudimentary as moving from typing on a phone to a keyboard, they said.

“Even though we have this robust labor market, we have employers that are looking at a scarcity of talent,” said Demetra Brown, Partnership Engagement Manager at Generation, a nonprofit that trains young adults with sought-after industry skills. “We also have thousands of youth that are underemployed or unemployed, who are not engaging in the job market.”

Add to this mix is the fact that increasingly more employers in the Dallas Region are open to employing workers who pursue alternative pathways to gain in-demand skills, Brown said.

Kris Munoz-Vetter, Executive Director of Year Up Dallas/Fort Worth, said employers are seeking soft skills such as managing conflict and communications.

“What we’ve learned is that as important as our hard skills are – the need for coding and we certainly are looking for that, and data science – what’s really the secret sauce at Year Up is the professional skills training,” said Munoz-Vetter, whose Year Up nonprofit focuses on helping young adults obtain the tools and support they need to establish careers. “Our focus really is on making that equally important. On listening, the ability to provide feedback (among other soft skills), is really is critical to our workforce today as we grow and evolve to be able to serve as technology changes.”

Rebecca Taber Staehelin, Founder and CEO of Merit America – a nonprofit that prepares low-wage workers for higher-skill, higher-paid jobs – said what’s key is a company’s willingness to hire based on talent, drive, and ambition rather than traditional credentials.

Some companies are also setting degree expectations too high for jobs, said Stephanie Valadez, Managing Director of Per Scholas Dallas, which focuses on IT training for unemployed or underemployed adults.

“At entry-level, we are seeing an incredible amount of degree inflation, like for a help desk position, [they are] requiring three to five years of experience, and a bachelor’s degree, and some are looking for a master’s degree,” Valadez said. “Who wants to go into an entry-level job with all that debt? And are you going to keep those people for long? Probably not.”

Valadez said that’s where the upskilling nonprofits come in, providing workers who are much more likely to stay.

Workforce Solutions Greater Dallas’ Laurie Bouillion Larrea, who moderated the event, said employers also need to emphasize empathy for its upskilled workers who are facing challenges from numerous perspectives, from transportation to child care – a sentiment to which all the panelists agreed.

“There are cases where, there’s an employee who’s standing at a bus stop with an infant in a stroller, and she’s holding the hand of a toddler, and she’s got to get a bus to take those kids to day care. If she’s five minutes late, an employer will not have empathy,” she said. “We’ve got to correct that.”

The Education to Employment Outlook series presenting sponsors are Oncor and Texas Instruments.