the robots are coming

New report identifies the Houston jobs that are most likely going to be affected by automation

For better or for worse, automation is going to have an affect on specific jobs in Houston. Getty Images

A new report from UpSkill Houston, a workforce initiative of the Greater Houston Partnership, puts the implications of workplace automation into stark focus. According to the report, more than 50 percent of middle-skill jobs in the Houston area face a higher-than-average risk of being upset by automation.

Peter Beard, who leads UpSkill Houston and is senior vice president for workforce development at the Greater Houston Partnership, says this means technology will "get embedded even more in the workplace than it's ever been before. … People's jobs will change because they have to work alongside technology. And there will be some jobs that get displaced because of that technology."

"Robots are coming," he adds, "but they're not going to replace us. We're going to have to figure out how to work beside them."

Middle-skill jobs require less than a four-year bachelor's degree but more than a high school diploma. In other words, jobs fitting into this middle ground might demand a two-year associate's degree or a training certificate from a technical school.

The report, released July 16, points out that middle-skill occupations in manufacturing and construction, for instance, face a high risk of disruption as companies adopt technologies that automate tasks, such as prefabrication of building materials. By contrast, the report notes, automation places jobs in the health care and service sectors in far less jeopardy because they generally rely on tasks that can't easily be automated. For example, jobs in health care often require social skills that can't be replicated through automation, which includes artificial intelligence, robotics, and machine learning.

However, jobs in health care aren't entirely immune from shifts in the workplace. The report indicates jobs in workforce segments like health care, sales and office support, IT, management, and drafting now require a medium or high level of digital skills.

That being said, all workers — regardless of their industry, occupation, or education — must embrace solid digital skills in order to succeed in the workforce, the report states. Beard says that to compete in today's workforce, a high school graduate must be proficient in Microsoft's Word, Excel, and PowerPoint programs as well as in a customer relationship management platform like Salesforce.

The findings in the UpSkill Houston report come at a pivotal time for the Houston economy, given the job-slashing double whammy of the coronavirus pandemic and the oil slump. The pandemic "has accelerated and accentuated a fundamental change that has been underway — a change in the education and skills needed to be successful in the workforce today and into the future," the report states.

That change poses particular challenges for low-skill and middle-skill workers in the Houston area, according to the report. The report recommends that workforce development stakeholders, including employers, schools, and community organizations, build a regional "framework" aimed at ramping up skillsets so workers can seize increasingly elevated career opportunities.

"It all starts with the employer. The employer is in the best position to know what skills they need today and what skills they are likely to need tomorrow," Beard says. "Fundamentally, we're trying to create a supply chain of talent that meets the needs of our economy and the needs of our employers."

But that takes employers collaborating with schools to ensure those skills are being taught, he says, and employers and schools motivating students to consider jobs that incorporate those skills.

Beard assigns those skills to four categories:

  • Technical skills
  • Digital skills
  • Soft skills, such as communication
  • Problem-solving skills

"This whole push we've had that everyone should go to college and get a four-year degree has made folks consider jobs that don't require a four-year college degree to be menial," Beard says. "That same mentality has also permeated the employers. How many job descriptions have we seen that put a four-year degree requirement on them but that don't require four years of college education?"

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Building Houston

 
 

As of this week, Lara Cottingham is the chief of staff at Greentown Labs. Photo via LinkedIn

The country's largest climatetech startup incubator has made a strategic new hire.

Lara Cottingham is the new chief of staff for Greentown Labs, a Boston-area company that opened in Houston earlier this year. Cottingham previously served as the city of Houston's chief sustainability officer and the chief of staff for the city's Administration and Regulatory Affairs Department for the past seven years. In her new role, Cottingham will oversee the day-to-day operations and communications for Greentown's CEO Emily Reichert, along with key stakeholder engagements and strategic initiatives for the incubator.

"Lara brings a tremendous wealth of knowledge and experience to our team from her dynamic leadership role at the City of Houston," says Reichert in a news release. "Her breadth of knowledge in sustainability, climate, and the energy transition, and her expertise in regulatory and stakeholder aspects of the energy industry, will be incredibly valuable to our team and community."

Under her leadership at the city of Houston, Cottingham was the chief author of Houston's Climate Action Plan, an initiative aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Houston, and getting the city to a point where it meets the Paris Agreement goal of carbon neutrality by 2050. Cottingham helped the city move to 100 percent renewable electricity, according to the release, and helped turn a 240-acre landfill into the nation's largest urban solar farm.

"In leading the Climate Action Plan, Lara helped spark Houston's leadership in what has become a global energy transition and was a passionate advocate for climate action in Houston," says Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner in the release. "While she will be missed, this new role will only strengthen our partnership with Greentown. I look forward to working with Emily, Lara, and the Greentown team to meet our climate goals and make Houston the energy capital of the future."

Before her work at the city, Cottingham worked at Hill+Knowlton Strategies' Houston office range of clients across the energy sector. Earlier in her career, she served as communications director for two congressmen in the U.S. House of Representatives. She began her work with the city in 2014.

"In working with Mayor Turner and Climate Mayors across the U.S., I saw how important partnerships are to helping cities decarbonize," says Cottingham in the release. "There is no better partner or place for climate action at work than Greentown Labs. Greentown is 100 percent committed to attracting and nurturing the energy companies of the future and making Houston the energy transition capital of the world. I'm excited to join the team and see how climatetech can help cities reach their climate goals."

Greentown Labs first announced its entrance into the Houston market last summer. The new 40,000-square-foot facility in Midtown across the street from The Ion opened its prototyping and wet lab space, offices, and community gathering areas for about 50 startup companies opened in April. Greentown was founded in 2011 in Somerville, Massachusetts, and has supported more than 400 startups, which have raised more than $1.5 billion in funding.

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