About this series
In the first part of our ongoing series, we looked at the ongoing quest to bring more industry and business to the Killeen area. Talking to local economic development heads, we found that this area faces challenges due to proximity to Austin and competition from similarly sized communities around the U.S. that are also trying to lure those companies.
In the second part of series, we explore the “skills gap” — the idea that there are well paying jobs going unfilled in this area because not enough people have the skills to fill them.
In our next installment, we’ll look at the education portion of the jobs equation, talking with officials at local colleges and school districts about their efforts to connect willing workers with companies that need them.
Residents want jobs. Jobs for themselves, jobs for their relatives and jobs for their communities.
Local governments want to bring businesses and industry to the area to create more jobs.
Yet, some 11,000 unfilled jobs exist and they pay a substantial hourly wage, according to Workforce Solutions of Central Texas.
How is it possible that so many jobs are going unfilled in this region?
THE SKILLS GAP
Killeen Mayor Jose Segarra told the Herald significant number of jobs were going unfilled in this area because people don’t have the education or training to fill them. His source? Workforce Solutions of Central Texas.
Charley Ayres can back up the mayor’s statement with authority. Ayres is the director of industry and education partnerships at Workforce Solutions of Central Texas.
“I work both with businesses in the region and the school districts and colleges to try to make that connection (to bridge) the skills gap,” Ayres said in a recent interview with the Herald. “There are currently about 5,600 people in the metro area (Bell, Lampasas and Coryell counties) that are unemployed. And the interesting thing is, during the month of March, there were 11,700 unique online postings for jobs in (this) metro area.
“Even if all those people were employable, you’re still short,” Ayres said.
The latest unemployment numbers show unemployment in the Bell-Coryell-Lampasas region fell to 3.2% in March of this year. That compares to 3.8% in March and 3.8% in April of last year.
Ayres said the unemployment numbers do not reflect an important segment of the population: people who are able to work but have stopped looking for jobs.
“Our total working age population for the (three-county) MSA is just over 346,000,” Ayres said, citing data from Workforce Solutions’ economic modeling software. “There are 180,000 of those that are considered labor force. That leaves 165,000 that are not in the labor force.”
The number of jobs in the three-county area continues to grow. After falling into negative territory for five months last year, the number of total jobs in the area has risen steadily, reaching just below 3% in April.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics bears out the job growth numbers, showing that every job category in the Killeen-Temple area held steady or grew from March to April of this year.
Ayres said he has to balance multiple and sometimes conflicting reports in an effort to make sense of the employment picture across the region. Some numbers from the federal government don’t match numbers issued by the state because the Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t track some job categories. He feels he gets better data from Workforce Solutions’ computer software but can’t release it publicly because it’s proprietary information for internal use only.
There is one thing Ayres knows for sure: there are more jobs available then there are people to fill them.
JOBS VS. CAREERS
Each year, Workforce Solutions of Central Texas issues a targeted occupations list that forecasts the growth of different categories of jobs and estimates the hourly wage for an experienced person.
The 2019-2020 list shows dental hygienist as a profession expected to grow more than 63% by 2026. While entry level pay is listed at $17 an hour, the report says experienced hygienists can make up to $46 an hour.
Other job categories expected to see double-digit growth over the next six to seven years include medical assistants (27.4%), web developers (27%), sonographers (19.3%) and computer support specialists (18.8%).
Ayres called the list “the best educated guess based on economic models.”
He thinks people fixate on the starting wage of a particular job without considering the wage potential for someone who makes a career of it.
“Especially when you’re younger,” Ayres said. “There’s a short-sightedness there, and they don’t really look at what a seasoned or experienced worker in a particular occupation is really making.”
For example, a computer support specialist may start at $14 an hour in an entry level position. But Workforce Solutions estimates an experienced employee in that field can make up to $49 an hour.
“Many folks don’t consider the time element,” Ayres said. “They’re looking for something right now that gets them (immediately) to where they want to be.”
Ayres also said some job seekers ignore certain categories of employment because of old impressions and stereotypes.
“Truck drivers are a good example,” Ayres said. “They can easily make, in this area, (up to) to $70,000 a year.”
Ayres said the targeted occupation list is a way to guide those in the job market toward opportunities while stripping away some preconceptions about what certain jobs pay.
“There are some of these jobs that are really growing,” he said. “Over time they have just turned into (well-paying jobs).”
EDUCATION AND TRAINING
One element of note on the targeted occupation list is the amount of training or education it takes to get into a certain field.
Ayres said there are several strategies that are currently being used by Workforce Solutions to try to direct more people into careers that have openings and pay well.
A big focus is the health care industry. Ayres said retiring baby boomers are driving growth in that area, creating numerous job opportunities with few people to fill them.
“Almost every public school district in our region is implementing and has a pretty comprehensive technical education program,” Ayres said, pointing to the occupation of pharmacy technician as one example. “They can get that certification and that training while they’re in high school and when they graduate they are industry certified to start that job.”
Ayres said public schools are also teaming up with Temple College and Central Texas College for dual credit and other partnership opportunities to help students become qualified more quickly for technical occupations.
Ayres said there are also programs that are ready to help those who find themselves needing to learn a new career.
“We have grant programs in place from the Department of Labor that will help them with some grant money to re-educate themselves and take their skill set to a new level.”
The grants can also help those who have lost their jobs find a new career, or help those who want to make more money get the additional education needed to move into a higher wage job.
“It’s just a constant education effort and training effort to get people skilled to fill (the open) positions,” Ayres said.
Ayres believes many people want an instant solution when it comes to connecting people to jobs, but he emphasizes that it is not a simple task.
“It’s not something you can just build overnight,” Ayres said. “It’s really a supply and demand issue right now in many of these industries.
“The bottom line continues to be that there are more jobs than there are people to fill them.”