MCALLEN, Texas – The commissioner for higher education in Texas has admitted that the challenge of getting Texans the skills they need for today’s jobs is keeping him up at night.

Harrison Keller spoke in depth about the impact the coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent recession has had on higher education and workforce training at a breakfast gathering hosted recently by the McAllen Chamber of Commerce.

“Let me share some of what is keeping me up at night. How we move forward on this is going to depend on how we work our way through three key dilemmas. First, one of the most striking things to me about the recession we’ve experienced is how strong the correlation is between unemployment and educational attainment,” Keller said.

“So, right now, we can see that Texas workers that have bachelor’s degrees are not back to where they were pre-pandemic but they are actually really close. Folks who don’t have any kind of post-secondary education beyond high school have experienced a much deeper and a much more sustained recession.”

Keller said the data “looks even worse” when broken down by geography and demographics. 

“So, in particular there is a strong correlation between lower educational attainment rates for our Hispanic populations, for our Hispanic communities, and for our black communities and high unemployment. Of course, the same communities have been hit especially hard by Covid-19. So, this recession is the most inequitable that we have seen since this data has been tracked.”

Keller then spoke about the second thing that keeps him up at night.

“So, let’s just stipulate, it is absolutely clear we need to educate more Texans to higher standards than we’ve ever achieved before. But, it is not going to be enough just to stop at the notion that we need to award more credentials,” Keller said.

“There are tens of thousands of good jobs being created right here in Texas. Just in the last year and a half we saw major announcements from Amazon, Google, from Apple, of course from SpaceX. But we know that there can be substantial distances between the kinds of skills that those good jobs require and the kinds of skills and kinds of credentials that most Texans have today.”

Keller said Texans in the workforce now need the kinds of skills that make it easy to transition between jobs and across similar jobs.

“We don’t just need more credentials, we need credentials that are going to help Texans attain the skills that align with the current emerging workforce needs, especially in these high demand and high quality fields that have strong career trajectories. We need this now and we are going to need it into the future,” Keller explained.

“So, that includes hundreds of thousands of Texans who have found that the same job that they lost last year hasn’t come back to it has come back and it looks different. So, it is hundreds of thousands of Texans who need to re-skill and up-skill to be able to get back into the workforce, to be able to get back on a career path. (They) even might need more eduction and training to get a similar job in the same industry.”

Keller said the state’s leadership is committed to making sure Texas has the best climate for business.

“But, we’ve consistently heard from employers that the major reason that they are going to come to and they are going to stay in and grow in Texas is going to be our talent pipeline.”

Keller said the third dilemma he and the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. (THECB) is facing is, in his view, even more challenging.

“Even as we are seeing higher unemployment for workers who don’t have post secondary credentials… and we have actually done some polling of folks who have some college but no credentials… who have been displaced from their jobs and people recognize that if they lose their jobs they might need some additional education and training… even then, that enrollment at those board access institutions are down,” Keller said.

“So, even in that context where people understand that they might need some additional education and training, on average our enrollments in community colleges were down ten percent this Spring.”

Keller’s visit to the Rio Grande Valley included private meetings with educators and industry and economic development leaders. He was introduced at the McAllen Chamber event by Fred Farias, chairman of THECB. Farias, a McAllen resident, is chair of the McAllen Chamber’s governmental affairs committee. The chamber event was held at the Old Church Winery on Main Street in McAllen.

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