Austin-American Statesman: Job openings grow as Austin area battles skills gap
By Bob Sechler - American-Statesman Staff
The latest sign of the surging economy in the Austin metro area is, literally, a sign — “Help Wanted.”
Postings for local job openings topped 43,000 last month, 10 percent more than in June 2017, according to data compiled by the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce. The figure also substantially outpaced the 38,092 people in the metro area that the Texas Workforce Commission counted as unemployed last month.
Labor experts said Wednesday that the trends point to a disconnect between the skills of many local job seekers and the qualifications sought by employers.
Speaking during an Urban Land Institute event in downtown Austin, they extolled the benefits of workforce training — including corporate internships and apprenticeships — to help prevent area residents from being left behind amid the hot economy, as well as to mitigate burgeoning problems such as traffic congestion and affordability that are exacerbated when companies are forced to recruit from elsewhere.
Some also warned that the issue eventually could slow the Austin metro area’s high growth rate, if employers aren’t able to find and attract enough qualified employees.
“It’s a problem we want to make sure Austin addresses,” said Drew Scheberle, a senior vice president at the chamber of commerce. The so-called “skills gap” in the local workforce “probably is constraining the economy a bit (now), but we’re still growing really fast.”
In June 2017, there were 39,126 job openings in the Austin metro area — which includes Travis, Williamson, Hays, Bastrop and Caldwell counties — and the number of people unemployed was officially pegged at 37,631.
Tamara Atkinson, chief executive of Workforce Solutions Capital Area, said the problem for many job seekers her organization tries to help is that they lack qualifications for the “middle skills” jobs that don’t necessarily require a college degree but do demand more than a high school diploma. As a result, she said during Wednesday’s event, they aren’t able to land anything but entry-level, low-skill positions that don’t provide them with enough money to make ends meet.
Workforce Solutions Capital Area, which is funded by the federal government and helps identify and pay for job training, currently has more than 13,000 registered job seekers. The figure is down a bit from last year, Atkinson said — but only because more people have been opting to work multiple low-wage jobs amid the hot local job market.
“We’re in an economy where many people who want a job can get a job, but they still may not get ahead” financially, Atkinson said. “Our problem is that people are not necessarily getting ahead” in the jobs that they’re able to land.
Still, she said she’s optimistic the situation can improve, largely because the community has begun to focus on it. Among other efforts, various business and education-related groups signed on to an initiative last year — called the Austin Metro Area Master Community Workforce Plan — to help local people living in poverty gain the qualifications necessary for middle-skills jobs and become financially stable.
“For the first time as a community, we’re working on a comprehensive plan to close the middle-skills gap,” she said.
Austin Community College, which is a supporter of the plan, has developed apprenticeship programs that provide students with hands-on training while also enabling companies to have input on the skills being taught in classrooms, said Garrett Groves, vice president of ACC’s business and industry partnerships.
Groves, speaking during Wednesday’s event, cited among other examples a two-year Samsung apprenticeship for high school graduates operated in conjunction with ACC.
Such programs allow companies to have “a lot more say” now in the technical training provided by ACC, he said. For educators nationwide, “the days of train and pray (that graduates can find jobs) are over.”
Instead, ACC has been identifying “where we have huge gaps in the labor force” and designing curriculum accordingly, Groves said. “Our economy is changing rapidly, (and) the education system must follow suit” to ensure the skills being taught correspond to what is needed by employers.
The local unemployment rate registered 3.2 percent last month, according to the Texas Workforce Commission, the lowest nonseasonally adjusted rate for the month of June since it came in at 2.5 percent in 1999. The metro area’s civilian labor force has climbed to 1.19 million people since then, from about 713,000.