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COVID-19 could cost Houston 44,000 jobs by the end of the year, says local economist

According to a new study, Houston is among the cities most vulnerable to job loss due to the recession caused by COVID-19. Getty Images

No matter whether the outlook leans more toward optimism or pessimism, Houston stands to lose a head-spinning number of jobs in the grips of a coronavirus-induced recession.

Economist Bill Gilmer, director of the Institute for Regional Forecasting at the University of Houston's Bauer College of Business, says a moderate recession could drain as many as 44,000 jobs from the regional economy by the end of 2020. That's out of nearly 3.2 million workers in the Houston metro area.

The job figures might look "much worse" through the second and third quarters of this year, Gilmer says. However, he adds, Houston's job losses should be followed by a "quick recovery" in 2021.

A study published March 27 by personal finance website SmartAsset predicts an even greater impact on employment in Houston.

SmartAsset forecasts 56,469 full-time and part-time jobs in just the city of Houston, or nearly 5 percent of the local workforce, could be lost in a coronavirus recession. In all, more than 282,000 jobs, or 24.6 percent of the city's workforce, could be in jeopardy, according to the study.

John Diamond, director of the Center for Public Finance at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy, says he thinks Smart Asset's job-loss estimate is "decent" but might be too low.

In light of the federal government's extension of social-distancing guidelines to April 30 and perhaps further extensions, Diamond believes Houston will suffer "substantial" job losses in the next two to four months. After the social-distancing rules are relaxed, Diamond expects an employment bounce-back later in the year.

"The recovery could be rapid if business supply chains and networks remain intact," Diamond says, "and if oil prices rebound by the end of the year."

For his part, Ed Hirs, an economics lecturer at the University of Houston, pessimistically envisions about 300,000 people in the Houston metro area will lose their jobs, at least in the short term, due to the coronavirus recession and the recent plunge in oil prices. (By comparison, the Economic Policy Institute projects the entire state of Texas will lose 442,717 private-sector jobs as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.)

"COVID-19 is going to be kind of a catch-all spring cleaning excuse for a lot of the oil and gas companies as they try to reduce their payroll," Hirs says.

For now, though, concerns about the oil war between Russia and Saudi Arabia must "take a back seat" to concerns about COVID-19, he says.

Aside from the energy industry, the escalating economic slump promises to hit several other prominent business sectors in Houston, including hospitality and manufacturing. Hirs thinks a recession could shrink Houston's 2020 economic output by 10 percent.

"This is across the board," he says, "and has the potential to be extraordinarily devastating."

ThinkWhy, a labor analysis firm, believes the impact of the COVID-outbreak on the Houston job market will be more evident in the blow it delivers to international trade than in any boost it provides to the health care sector. "But the pandemic will no doubt have an impact on both," the firm says.

It's already having a tremendous impact on small and midsize businesses in the Houston area. A March 23-28 survey by the Greater Houston Partnership found 34 percent of those businesses already had reduced their headcounts in response to the COVID-19 slowdown. And 55 percent said they're unsure whether they'll wind up carrying out permanent layoffs in the next six months.

"Houstonians like to embrace the notion that their metro was among the last to enter the Great Recession and was among the first to exit. That's not going to be the case this time," economist Patrick Jankowski, senior vice president of research at the Greater Houston Partnership, wrote in an unvarnished economic assessment published March 20. "All three pillars of Houston's economy — energy, global trade, and the U.S. economy — are tottering. The next 12 to 18 months will likely be very rough for Houston."

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Building Houston

 
 

When examining how you can better prepare and respond to ongoing climate-related challenges, the CRE community needs to prioritize marginalized communities that are already experiencing most of the negative impacts. Photography by Peter Molick

Houston is no stranger to hurricanes, and in recent years winter storms have become an increasing concern. Following the winter freeze in 2021, more than 4 million Texans were left without power, water, or heat. The state’s infrastructure system was adversely impacted concurrently — including workplaces, hospitals, transportation, homes, drinking water distribution, electric power generation, agriculture, and grocery stores. Now, a new potential disaster is on the horizon. Recent research shows Houston is most likely to be affected by wildfires, a climate-related challenge that our city has not previously faced.

According to the Gensler Research Institute’s 2022 U.S. Climate Action Survey, since 2019, only 18 percent of Americans believe their communities are built to withstand climate change. The good news is Americans overwhelmingly agree that addressing climate change is urgent. The question many are asking is — “How can we take action to better prepare buildings and cities to weather the climate challenge?” The solution is simple. In order to understand where we need to go, we must understand how we got here.

With a population that has more than doubled in the past 50 years, it is challenging for most Houstonians to imagine a time when The Bayou City was nothing more than agricultural lands and oil fields. Today, Houston is known for being the fourth-most populous city in the United States. It is a sprawling concrete jungle home to the world’s largest concentration of healthcare and research institutions. When reflecting on the past 50 years, one can’t help but evaluate the city’s successes and shortcomings. While Houston has succeeded in becoming a diverse, international city, we have sacrificed the very ecology that once made up one of the country’s most productive agricultural areas. By 1980, Houston possessed the least amount of green space per person in the country.

As new developments popped up across the city, it became difficult to convince developers to pursue third-party certifications such as LEED, a globally recognized symbol of sustainability that provides the framework for designing healthy, efficient, carbon saving buildings. We can credit Hines with being one of the few developers in Houston to prioritize green design during the early-2000s. City leaders also began advocating for resilient strategies and more green space to attract and retain international talent and businesses. In recent years, we have seen an increase in buildings that are achieving LEED certification, and soon it will become the baseline.

The Houston Advanced Research Center, Photography by Shau Lin Hon, Slyworks Photography

An example of a project leading the way for resilient design is The Houston Advanced Research Center (HARC). In 2017 the organization completed work on its LEED Platinum Certified headquarters which was designed to meet the ENERGY STAR certification rate of 99 (out of 100). This means that the building is more efficient than 99 percent of all office buildings in the United States. Skanska is another construction and development company bringing a sustainable mindset to downtown Houston with its work on Bank of America Tower. In 2019, the 775,000 square foot building became the largest LEED v4 Platinum Core and Shell certified project in the world to date and was developed with harvesting technology that will significantly reduce energy usage.

It’s also important to understand the impact that the climate crisis is having on people. 91 percent of U.S. Gen Z/Millennials have been affected by extreme weather events since 2019, the most of any generation. These experiences have resulted in two generations preparing to react and combat climate change and has encouraged a spirit of transparency among companies who choose to share their environmental goals and strategies.

For architects and designers, addressing building and energy codes is proving to be the next big design consideration. As codes progress in the coming years, the result will be more unique and unexpected building designs.

When reimagining the use of buildings, Architects Paulina Abella and Tayler Trojcak propose an experimental process for repurposing vacant buildings called High Hackers. The concept provides an opportunity for developers to offer prime downtown real estate to people with diverse skill sets, whom they call “hackers,” to pursue projects shaped by their individual ideas. These hackers—makers, artists, and academics—will work alongside one another in spaces that encourage them to coexist with creatives from other fields and disciplines. More importantly, it fosters a collaborative, organic, and innovative workflow.

When examining how you can better prepare and respond to ongoing climate-related challenges, we encourage prioritizing marginalized communities that are already experiencing most of the negative impacts. Promoting awareness and optimism in our communities is another simple yet effective way to make a difference. For businesses, creating a sense of continuity in the face of climate events, investing in energy and resource efficiency and adaptation, and addressing insurability and the long-term value of real estate will ultimately help lead Houston and its community members toward a place of preparedness and resiliency.

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Rives Taylor directs Gensler’s Global Design Resilience teams and initiatives and has been a faculty member of both Rice University and the University of Houston for 30 years. Maria Perez is a design resilience leader for Gensler’s South Central region and director of sustainable design based in Gensler’s Houston office.

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