Texas has a lot going for it—low unemployment, population growth, and a favorable regulatory environment. People want to come here, and it’s not just for our brisket and breakfast tacos.
But our prosperity is unevenly distributed, with some regions experiencing a disheartening “tale of two cities” dynamic. Port Arthur is one such place. With the enormous growth in the petroleum sector along the Gulf Coast, one might expect Port Arthur’s unemployment rate to be low. Instead, Port Arthur’s unemployment is 8.7%, compared to the statewide rate of 3.1%.
One culprit is the striking mismatch between high school career and technical education and the demands of high-wage, high-skill, and high-growth jobs.
In the Gulf Coast region, where Port Arthur is located, the largest job growth above median wage—20%—is in the manufacturing and construction sectors. With the high demand for these jobs in many parts of Texas, employers are not looking for bachelor’s degrees. Instead, they need workers who already possess or can learn specific technical skills and who have an ability to execute consistently, safely, and punctually.
What’s in it for students? And are these dead-end careers? Consider the following: first, recent research reveals that each upper level vocational course in high school yields up to a 2% wage benefit after graduation. Second, the most common pathway to management-level jobs in manufacturing and construction is through on-the-job experience, supplemented with job-specific certifications and training.
With prospects like these, it seems reasonable that local high schools would adapt their offerings to give interested students a head start on these kinds of careers. Unfortunately, this is largely not the case.
Recent research on vocational course-taking reveals that as of 2016, 21% of students who concentrated in a single “vocational cluster” in the Beaumont/Port Arthur region focused on agriculture, the largest share of vocational concentrators in the region. Agriculture makes up less than 1% of the jobs in the region, and this share is not growing. Despite strong demand in the manufacturing and construction sectors, the number of students who concentrated in manufacturing and construction made up less than 1%.
Simply put, high school students in Port Arthur were not taking sequential career and technology courses that would prepare them for the high-wage, high-demand, high-skill jobs in their back yards. In possibly related news, Port Arthur’s poverty rate is 29.3%. Statewide, that number is 16.7%.
Recently, Port Arthur’s leadership has shown strong interest in changing this story. But these efforts are not being aided by well-meaning educators who still cling to the notion that higher education is the only path to well-being. The dogma isn’t serving young people or the community well.
School districts and local businesses have an opportunity to address regional unemployment, poverty, and depopulation by entering into partnership with each other. The Texas Legislature has made a variety of tools available for just this purpose, including Texas Partnerships, Pathways in Technology, and Industry Cluster Innovation Academies.
By working together, districts and businesses can offer high school students meaningful careers and technical education sequences, culminating in apprenticeship—whether they are “college bound” or not. Getting onto the first rung of the skilled craft ladder can give learners the financial and social capital to pursue happiness in many forms, including attending and completing college.
Texas taxpayers, businesses, and lawmakers should examine whether individual school districts are prioritizing their CTE funding to prepare interested students for high wage, high growth, and high skill jobs in their regions. If not, it is incumbent on businesses and school districts find ways to work together to give students more options that can lead to improved post-secondary outcomes, whether they take the form of college, trade school, entrepreneurship, or skilled employment.
Let’s focus on giving students strong, foundational knowledge and a range of relevant, domain-specific skills and experiences. If we invest hard work and resources into these goals, we may find that the return is even greater than merely financial for students.