Technical programs in Fort Bend County help fulfill local job demand

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More students entering the labor market faster could help meet the demand for technical and trade jobs in Fort Bend County over the next 10 years.

These include positions such as computer and information systems security, technicians, mechanics and engineering-related fields—skills that do not require as much time or money to achieve, and offer starting salaries of about $50,000, according to educators.

A Perryman Group study found that about 1,200 new workers with engineering and related skills would be needed each year to fill positions in Fort Bend. 

A shortage of people with that skill set is due to students preferring to attend four-year institutions rather than going into what Randall Wooten calls the middle skills—the technical, associate degree and certificate areas.

“This is where the majority of good job openings are,” said Wooten, who is the vice chancellor, chief execution officer and executive project manager for Texas State Technical College-Fort Bend.

Sugar Land and Missouri City students interested in technical and trade careers do not have to go far to find programs. Within a 30-minute drive are several higher education institutions, including a campus that has both the University of Houston-Sugar Land and Wharton County Junior College, Houston Community College’s campuses in Missouri City and Stafford, Texas State Technical College-Fort Bend and Fort Bend ISD’s new James Reese Career and Technical Center.

These institutions offer different pathways into the workforce, including a four-year degree or a technical degree or certification that requires a shorter, less expensive education, that aim to help students get a return on their investment and produce graduates that area employers want to hire.

“We are looking for ways to get our students into the workforce, and we will make a difference,” said Anthony Ambler, dean of the UH College of Technology.

FINDING A JOB IN LESS TIME

Some graduates can earn a first-year salary of about $40,000 in half the time it takes to achieve a four-year degree, according to Georgetown University’s Center for Education and the Workforce.

In addition, educators at all of the Fort Bend County institutions said their students typically find a job within six months—some even faster than that. For example, students learning to be line workers at TSTC—a one-year, three-semester certificate program—receive job offers starting at $60,000, Wooten said.

Rene Escobar said attending Texas State Technical College-Fort Bend has helped him improve his diesel equipment technology skills and where he can use them.

“I can go into a lot of different fields, such as agriculture, trucking, generators, oil rigs and the railroad,” Escobar said. “My options are much more open.”

He said TSTC is also preparing him for a good job. When he earns his associates degree this summer, he has the opportunity to start out at $60,000 a year.

Although students may graduate with a job, some also leave school with debt. About 55 percent of students will graduate from a Texas institution with an average debt of $27,000, according to LendEDU, a website that compares financial products, including student loans.

Students graduating from technical programs may leave with anywhere from $8,000 to $20,000 in debt, compared to over $30,000 in debt from four-year institutions such as The University of Texas or Texas A&M University, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

“Student debt is tied to postsecondary completion, so we are always looking for ways to educate students on applying for financial aid,” Kristen Kramer, deputy assistant commissioner of college readiness and success at THECB, said to a board of community colleges in March.

NEW EDUCATION OPTIONS

At UH-Sugar Land, a new College of Technology building is under construction on campus that will be complete in time for the fall 2019 semester. Dean Anthony Ambler said the school will support the needs of the technology industry and produce graduates in wanted disciplines, including biotechnology, computer engineering technology, computer information systems and digital media.

“Sugar Land is a great opportunity because engineering is one of the top industries in Fort Bend,” Ambler said. “What we find with employers is they prefer graduates to have more industrial or commercial experience and even be aware of management issues. We are producing people who are career-ready.”

Fort Bend ISD is also providing new opportunities as more students opt for a quicker path to a certification or degree. Graduates choosing a two-year institution grew from 23 percent in 2014 to 25 percent in 2016, according to the district. Over the same period, 44 percent enrolled in a four-year institution, down from 50 percent in 2014.

The district expects to serve 2,000 students daily at the James Reese Career and Technical Center—slated to open this fall—taking classes including audio/visual technology, automotive technology, information technology and engineering.

“We are being more innovative here with enterprise and business-to-business partnerships that are different than what other districts are doing,” FBISD Superintendent Charles Dupre said.

Students in the program can also take dual-credit coursework through higher education partners, including Texas State Technical College, Houston Community College, University of Houston and University of Houston-Downtown.

WORKING WITH EMPLOYERS

To meet the needs of local employers, colleges collaborate with employers via advisory boards and use that insight to develop curriculum for their students.

“The information we get about what the employers are expecting is crucial because we are not out in the workforce anymore,” said Carol Derkowski, Wharton County Junior College Division Chair for Allied Health. “We need that information to help us prepare the students so they can get their job.”

HCC also partners with manufacturing employers in the region on an apprenticeship program at its Stafford campus, Southwest President Madeline Burillo-Hopkins said.

Students  obtain national credentials, and the employer gets an apprentice who is constantly improving his or her knowledge, skills and competencies, she said.

An Le, extrustion manager at Accredo Packaging Inc. in Sugar Land, said Accredo wants to partner with a local school on a technical program to teach the skills Accredo needs to operate the machines used to create food and consumer products packaging.

Most training is on the job but takes about three years to learn how operate the machines they use, he said.

“The kind of skills we are looking for are not taught in schools, so it is hard to get people interested in these jobs because they don’t know they exist,” Le said. “Once our employees learn how to work these machines, they can go anywhere in the U.S. for a job.”

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Christine Hall
Christine Hall joined Community Impact Newspaper in October 2018, and covers Missouri City and Fort Bend ISD. She previously reported on health care innovation for the Texas Medical Center, was a freelancer, and held various news roles at the Houston Business Journal.
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