Even while operating at full bore, Athena Manufacturing in North Austin is quiet and pristine, defying the traditional crash-and-bang stereotype of metal machining and fabrication.
It is what much of Austin’s manufacturing looks and sounds like today. Advanced machinery producing precision products. A computer monitor at virtually every workstation. And a workforce with an increasingly advanced set of technical skills.
The difficulty is finding workers with the skills to make it all go.
“Our economy in Austin is in very short supply of people who can do the things we do,” said John Newman, Athena’s chief financial officer. “We’ve got middle-class jobs we can’t fill because the skill level is not there.”
Those concerns have come to the fore this year at the Texas Capitol, where a new statewide business coalition is pushing bills that would loosen high school graduation requirements and foster better career and technical training. The first of those bills, carried by Senate Education Committee Chairman Dan Patrick, R-Houston, is set to clear his committee on Tuesday.
Led by the Texas Chemical Council, the industry coalition includes representatives from manufacturing, oil and gas, construction, small business and more. Their efforts have been helped along by political pressure coming from parents, students and educators who are calling for an overhaul of the state’s student assessment system, known as STAAR.
“Everyone realizes something has to change. We have to create more flexibility, more choice, without taking away opportunities for kids to go to college,” Hector Rivero, president of the Texas Chemical Council, said.
While “college- and career-readiness” is the stated objective of the Texas public education system, career has long taken a back seat to college in schools.
Career training was sidelined in Texas following the 1984 education reforms pushed by Dallas businessman Ross Perot. But the industry leaders say the real blow came in 2007 when the Legislature instituted the 4x4 graduation plan, which requires four years each of math, science, English and social studies.
Industry leaders say that rigid structure hasn’t allowed students the flexibility to take courses that would help them pursue skilled trade jobs, which are in high demand and often translate into meaningful, well-paying careers.
“Today’s advanced manufacturing requires that a skilled tradesperson knows multiple skills in this space,” said Mario Lozoya, director of government relations for Toyota Motor Manufacturing in San Antonio, where Tundra and Tacoma pickups are assembled. “That kind of skilled person is not found in San Antonio. … We have to go outside of Texas to find them.”
Lozoya said the decline of career training in the 1980s is reflected in the graying workers who fix the motors, robotics systems and conveyors at the San Antonio plant, which employs about 2,900 people. For decades, there hasn’t been a direct pipeline of younger workers coming out of Texas high schools ready for the jobs in manufacturing, critics say.
Texas business leaders might have a decent argument based on a talent shortage, said Brian Kelsey, an Austin economic consultant and founder of Civic Analytics.
Economists have debated the extent of the skills shortage, but there is evidence to suggest many technical skills are in short supply around Central Texas.
Higher demand for a particular skill tends to boost wages for that occupation. According to Kelsey’s analysis of data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 87 occupations saw average annual wage growth of 3 percent or more from 2005 to 2011 – suggesting higher demand for those skills.
Of those occupations, just 34 required a four-year degree. The rest were a mix of associate’s degrees and high school diplomas, usually combined with on-the-job training requirements.
Of the 20 occupations with the fastest wage growth, only nine required at least a bachelor’s degree, Kelsey found. The average median wage of the otherswas $47,798 in 2011 – well within middle-class range.
“A four-year degree or better is still the best insurance policy against unemployment. The data is very clear about that,” Kelsey said. “However, career and technical education and college-prep shouldn’t be viewed as mutually exclusive.”
Proposals from education leaders in both the state House and the Senate would reduce the number of required courses in math, science and social studies to free up time for more electives and create several specialized paths toward graduation.
Under Patrick’s bill, for example, a “Business & Industry” endorsement would require an additional science course beyond the two needed for graduation. But the requirement could be met, for example, by a state-approved diesel mechanics course rather than physics. The additional electives would also give students opportunities to explore career training options.
The aim is give students more leeway to pursue courses they see as relevant to their future so they stay in school and graduate prepared for a productive career.
Alan Miller, executive director of the Capital Area Workforce Board, said 21st century career training is quite different from the “vo-tech” — vocational and technical track — of the past, which was seen as something less than the regular high school program. Minority students, in particular, were nudged toward a vo-tech track that sent them into dead-end jobs.
“In today’s world, career and technology is very rigorous. The standards for that are every bit as strong as college preparatory (classes), but what happens in many cases is it’s taught in a more applied manner. It’s not theoretical,” Miller said. “The rigor is high, but in many cases the applied math or applied science equally substitute for algebra or chemistry. The way it’s taught is different, but the rigor is there. People don’t understand that.”
Despite the political momentum behind career training this legislative session, some business and education leaders have reservations about the efforts to loosen the graduation requirements. Last week, the state commissioners who separately oversee the higher education and public education systems raised concerns about a retreat from rigorous graduation standards.
Students also need to understand that career training courses alone will not make them ready for these well-paid jobs, which typically require certification or two-year associate’s degrees, said Drew Scheberle, vice president for education at the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce.
That post-graduation training requires the same core courses as college, Scheberle said, and the 4x4 graduation plan was designed as a “a well-rounded course of study that would prepare you to shift in different areas as the economy shifts.”
Athena’s President Bill Johnson said his workers still need many of the same skills that they learn in the current high school curriculum, particularly algebra, geometry and trigonometry.
“If you don’t have aptitude in those three,” he said, “you won’t make it at a place like this.”
But workers also need to know how to translate the complex array of data and designs on the computer screen and apply that to the machinery and the hands-on tasks needed to finish the various aeronautical, oil-and-gas and semiconductor equipment Athena produces. And, as factory work gets increasingly technical, understanding that plan-to-production process becomes an increasingly important skill.
Given the constant and rapid transformation of the modern economy and its labor market, workers need to have a foundation upon which they can upgrade and enhance their skills throughout their careers, said Jon Hockenyos, principal of TXP, a local economic consulting firm.
“It’s not a question of what was your formal education, but what is your capacity to continue to learn as you go through your career?” he said. “That’s really the key in this question, and there are a lot of paths to get there.”
Skills in demand
A sampling of occupations that don’t require formal education beyond high school, yet posted some of the Austin metro area’s highest annual wage growth since 2005.
Occupation / Average annual wage growth (2005-2011) / Employment (2011) / Average wage (2011)
Maintenance Workers, Machinery / 13% / 400 / $56,810
Social and Human Service Assistants / 10% / 1,590 / $32,740
Fitness Trainers and Aerobics Instructors / 6% / 2,070 / $42,820
Construction and Building Inspectors / 6% / 760 / $53,380
Roustabouts (oil and gas) / 5% / 140 / $31,050
Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics; Civic Analytics
Kate Alexander covers K-12 education issues at the Texas Legislature. Dan Zehr covers the Central Texas economy, focusing much of his coverage on the local workers and jobs.