The analysis cites Amazon, Apple, and Tesla as three of the major employers in Texas pursuing AI initiatives. Photo via Getty Images

If internet search volume is an accurate barometer, Texas is a hotbed for interest in artificial intelligence jobs.

An analysis by Agility Writer, whose technology helps users produce AI-generated content, shows Texas ranks second among the states with the highest monthly search volume for AI-related jobs. The analysis puts Texas’ monthly search volume at 1,300, with California sitting in first place at 1,900 monthly searches.

“As the AI revolution continues to gain momentum, the geographic distribution of interest in AI careers is likely to evolve further, with states investing in AI education and fostering supportive ecosystems poised to reap the benefits of this transformative technology,” says Adam Yong, CEO of Agility Writer.

The analysis cites Amazon, Apple, and Tesla as three of the major employers in Texas pursuing AI initiatives.

Dice.com, a search engine for tech jobs, says AI roles that are in high demand include machine learning engineer, data scientist, AI research scientist, and robotics engineer.

“Looking forward, the demand for AI professionals is expected to intensify as technologies continue to advance and integrate into everyday business processes and consumer products. AI is not just creating jobs but also transforming them, requiring workers to adapt by gaining new skills,” says Dice.com.

A January 2024 report from career platform LinkedIn found that AI consultant and AI engineer are two of the 25 fastest-growing jobs in the U.S. this year. Most of these roles are concentrated in San Francisco, New York City, Washington, D.C.-Baltimore, and Boston, according to the report.

On the flip side, some analysts predict millions of jobs will be affected by or even lost to AI. For example, research from investment banking giant Goldman Sachs indicates roughly two-thirds of U.S. occupations “are exposed to some degree of automation by AI.”

A study released in 2023 by Chamber of Commerce, a business research company, anticipates as many as 12 percent of Houston-area workers could lose their jobs by 2027 due to AI.

"AI and technology in general may be taking certain jobs away, and yet we also see how it is changing the nature of jobs and even organizations and professions. In the ever-changing arena of AI, employees, job-seekers, and students will continue to adapt and learn new job skills that align with and anticipate workforce needs,” AI expert Fred Oswald, the Herbert S. Autrey Chair in Social Sciences at Rice University and a professor of psychological sciences, said in a 2023 news release.

Everything is better in Texas, including the state economy. Photo by via Getty Images

Texas profits from 4th best state economy in the U.S., report finds

report

Despite growing sentiments that the U.S. is on a path towards a recession, Texas is pulling a lot of weight as one of the best state economies in the nation, according to a new annual report from WalletHub.

Texas' strong state economy ranked No. 4, with Washington (No. 1), Utah (No. 2), and Massachusetts (No. 3) claiming the top three spots.

The study analyzed all 50 states and the District of Columbia based on 28 metrics to determine the "Best & Worst State Economies" in 2024. Each state was ranked across three major categories: Economic activity, economic health, and innovation potential.

The Lone Star State earned a score of 60.08 out of 100 possible points, nipping at the heels of Massachusetts, which earned 61.52 points. For comparison, Washington claimed its No. 1 title with a score of 71.10.

Here's how Texas performed within the three major categories in the study:

  • No. 2 – Economic activity
  • No. 7 – Economic health
  • No. 24 – Innovation potential

Most notably, Texas tied with Louisiana for the No. 1 most exports per capita nationwide, according to the report's findings. Texas also had the second-highest change in GDP (gross domestic product) from 2022 to 2023.

Texas has the 10th highest amount of "startup activity," which WalletHub calculated as the rate of newly established firms. Texas also scored No. 10 in the country for its annual median household income of $75,647.

Nonfarm payrolls – defined as the number of workers employed in the U.S. (excluding those the farming, nonprofit, active military, and private household sectors) – is another indicator for measuring each state's economy. Texas had the third-highest change in nonfarm payrolls from 2022 to 2023, according to WalletHub, behind Nevada and Florida.

Although the overall state of Texas' economy may be strong, that doesn't guarantee all Texans will reap the benefits from that success. WalletHub analyst Cassandra Happe explained there's more to improving state residents' financial success than just relying on the economy.

"Factors like a low unemployment rate and high average income help residents purchase property, pay down debt and save for the future," Happe said. "The best state economies also encourage growth by being friendly to new businesses and investing in new technology that will help the state deal with future challenges and become more efficient."

On the other end of the economic scale, Hawaii and Mississippi flopped with the worst state economies in the U.S. in 2024, ranking No. 50 and No. 51, respectively.

The top 10 states with the best economies are:

  • No. 1 – Washington
  • No. 2 – Utah
  • No. 3 – Massachusetts
  • No. 4 – Texas
  • No. 5 – California
  • No. 6 – Colorado
  • No. 7 – Florida
  • No. 8 – North Carolina
  • No. 9 – District of Columbia
  • No. 10 – Arizona
The full report can be found on wallethub.com

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Two new media startups coming to Texas in 2024. Photo via Getty Images

Breaking news: 2 media startups expand to Texas

coming soon

Houston is already a media-rich town, with multiple newspapers, magazines, and online sites. But it's about to get richer in 2024, with two newcomers arriving and setting up shop.

Here's two new media startups coming to Texas in 2024:

Amaré Magazine Texas
A quarterly print and digital magazine covering lifestyle, fashion, reality TV, celebrities, philanthropy, entertainment, events, arts & culture, cuisine, breaking news, and pop culture — phew, that's a lot — is launching an edition in Texas.

Their "about us" page says they began in L.A. in 2016. Their founder/CEO is George Rojas, a fashion/stylist expert, event producer, and according to his bio, former meth addict. The mission: shine a light on artists, entrepreneurs, and businesses via a business model that allows professionals to expand their network, grow their social media, and work with advertisers and investors. Prior issues include "profiles" similar to the Voyage-type sites where the subjects write the profiles themselves.

Helping to launch in Texas is skincare doctor and "Bravo TV personality" James Mercer and editor Lindsay Stevenson.

While short on experience, they're long on enthusiasm. They breezed through Texas in May, stopping at Dallas restaurant Bistro 31, as well as the Highland Park home of D’Andra Simmons and the Houston home of reality-TV star and famed closet-owner Theresa Roemer — the latter of whom will be on the cover of the first issue which they say will debut in August. They claim to also be launching an edition in New York.

Courier Texas
National pro-democracy news network founded in 2019 is opening a bureau in Texas, and advertising for positions — based in Dallas — that include political reporter, operating/managing director, and a statewide social media manager, with a launch slated for summer 2024.

Courier's mission is to build a more informed and engaged America by providing factual, values-driven news, and analysis online. Their reporting is produced primarily for social media and online channels, with an emphasis on video, graphics, and skimmable newsletters.

Their CEO is Tara McGowan, who has worked in journalism and politics, mostly for Democratic candidates, as have a number of their staffers. To avoid spreading misinformation, they eschew the "both sides" approach followed by so many mainstream media sites under the guise of being "balanced."

They currently have outlets based in 10 states: Arizona, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, Florida, Iowa, North Carolina, New Hampshire, and Nevada.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

The funding announced Monday by the Commerce Department is part of a total investment in the cluster that, with private money, is expected to exceed $40 billion. Photo via Getty Images

Biden administration agrees to provide $6.4 billion to Samsung for making computer chips in Texas

tech development

The Biden administration has reached an agreement to provide up to $6.4 billion in direct funding for Samsung Electronics to develop a computer chip manufacturing and research cluster in Texas.

The funding announced Monday by the Commerce Department is part of a total investment in the cluster that, with private money, is expected to exceed $40 billion. The government support comes from the CHIPS and Science Act, which President Joe Biden signed into law in 2022 with the goal of reviving the production of advanced computer chips domestically.

“The proposed project will propel Texas into a state of the art semiconductor ecosystem,” Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said on a call with reporters. “It puts us on track to hit our goal of producing 20% of the world’s leading edge chips in the United States by the end of the decade.”

Raimondo said she expects the project will create at least 17,000 construction jobs and more than 4,500 manufacturing jobs.

Samsung's cluster in Taylor, Texas, would include two factories that would make four- and two-nanometer chips. Also, there would be a factory dedicated to research and development, as well as a facility for the packaging that surrounds chip components.

The first factory is expected to be operational in 2026, with the second being operational in 2027, according to the government.

The funding also would expand an existing Samsung facility in Austin, Texas.

Lael Brainard, director of the White House National Economic Council, said Samsung will be able to manufacture chips in Austin directly for the Defense Department as a result. Access to advanced technology has become a major national security concern amid competition between the U.S. and China.

In addition to the $6.4 billion, Samsung has indicated it also will claim an investment tax credit from the U.S. Treasury Department.

The government has previously announced terms to support other chipmakers including Intel and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. in projects spread across the country.

A new ranking puts Texas at No. 9 among the states with the highest expenses for starting and operating a business. Photo via Getty Images

Texas lands in top 10 most-expensive cities for running a new business

pay up

Everything is bigger in Texas — or at least somewhat bigger — and that appears to include the cost of running a new business.

A new ranking from business consulting firm Venture Smarterputs Texas at No. 9 among the states with the highest expenses for starting and operating a business.

New York appears at No. 1 on the list, followed by Washington and Massachusetts.

The cheapest state? Mississippi. It was preceded in the ranking by Kentucky and North Dakota.

To come up with its list, Venture Smarter looked at eight metrics, including corporate tax rate, average LLC filing fees, average real estate costs, and minimum wage.

Texas scored 59.74 out of 100 for startup expenses, with a higher score being worse.

The Lone Star State tied with Tennessee for the highest initial LLC filing fees ($300). But unlike many other states, Texas doesn’t require business owners to pay LLC filing fees each year to keep a business incorporated.

Texas fared well on several counts, though, such as no corporate tax, a low state-mandated minimum wage ($7.25 an hour), and relatively low real estate costs.

“This research aims to provide valuable insights into the business climate across various states, offering new entrepreneurs the information they need to make well-informed decisions on their entrepreneurial journey,” Venture Smarter says in a statement. “By understanding the unique characteristics and challenges of each state, aspiring business owners can navigate the complexities of different markets and optimize their chances of success.”

Life is much more difficult when you're stressed out. Photo via Getty Images

Troubled Texans are the 10th most stressed out people in America, report finds

new report

There is a plethora of reasons to be stressed out in 2024. Among the list of grievances are budgeting woes, lapses in addressing racial inequity, a significant amount of drunk driving, and prohibitively high healthcare costs.

So it comes as no surprise that Texas was ranked the No. 10 most stressed state of 2024, according to the latest annual report from WalletHub. Texans' stress levels are only slightly better than they were in 2023, when the Lone Star State ranked No. 9.

The personal finance website compared all 50 states across 40 unique metrics to determine every state’s worries on certain issues, such as employment, finance, health, or family-related stress.

Here's how Texas performed in the major categories in the study:

  • No. 5 – Work-related stress
  • No. 8 – Family-related stress
  • No. 11 – Health- and safety-related stress
  • No. 23 – Money-related stress

Texas employees have the second-longest workweek in the nation, the report found, placing the state right behind Alaska and tied with Wyoming. Places like Houston, Corpus Christi, and San Antonio are a few of the most stressful U.S. cities for workers in 2024 (with several other Texas cities not far behind), clearly showing that there's much more work to be done to alleviate Texans' work-related stress.

Hardships with work may have an influence on Texans' ability to rest at night, as the report additionally found Texas fell behind into No. 23 for its share of adults that get adequate sleep.

Other Texas-sized stress factors like crime rates, housing affordability, health troubles, and poverty rates also put a damper on residents' well-beings. Texans have the fourth lowest credit scores in the nation, the ninth highest share of adults with fair or poor health, and the 11th highest number of residents living in poverty.

It's not just young and middle-aged adults who experience these worries, the report claimed.

"[E]very age group except people 65 and older reported being under more stress in 2023 than they were in 2019 before the pandemic," the report's author wrote.

WalletHub analyst Cassandra Happe suggested a few ways frazzled Texans can try to improve their stress levels, such as exercising, participating in hobbies, going on vacations — of course, in whatever capacity that is most accessible — and seeking help from a mental health professional.

"What many people don’t realize, though, is that changing location can also be a big stress reducer," Happe added. "For example, states that have lower crime rates, better health care, and better economies tend to have much less stressed residents."

Texans surely aren't envious of Louisiana, which traded places with Mississippi (No. 2) in 2024 to become the nation's No. 1 most stressed out state. Louisiana residents experience the third highest work- and health-and-safety-related stress, the fourth highest money-related stress, and the 10th highest family-related stress. Louisianans may want to try some breathing exercises in their spare time.

Texas residents can, however, be filled with jealousy over Minnesota (No. 50), which was crowned the least stressed out city in America. Maybe that's where Texans need to be taking vacations.

The overall top 10 most stressed states are:

  • No. 1 – Louisiana
  • No. 2 – Mississippi
  • No. 3 – Nevada
  • No. 4 – New Mexico
  • No. 5 – Arkansas
  • No. 6 – West Virginia
  • No. 7 – Alabama
  • No. 8 – Kentucky
  • No. 9 – Oklahoma
  • No. 10 – Texas
The full report and its methodology can be found on wallethub.com.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Here's what it's like using new connection-focused app that just launched in Houston

Branching out

Editor's note: CultureMap Austin editor Brianna Caleri recently attended a dinner arranged by Timeleft, an app that helps people meet each other. The app just launched in Houston — read about Brianna's experience using the app below.

Conventional wisdom — if I may be so bold as to define it — would suggest that people who want to make friends should: select a genuine interest, join a group centered around it, and keep attending meetings. I have not quite been sold on the generic women's group meetups I see on Facebook; and even the most passionate conversations about my ramen bar neighbor's favorite noodle dishes at have never led us to hang out a second time.

I tend to look for friends who will suggest ethical shopping alternatives, make impassioned, over-intellectualized art recommendations, and stay up late workshopping existential dread. But I recognize that's a lot to ask after one dinner.

Thus, I was both surprised and not surprised at all to really enjoy Austin's second-ever Timeleft dinner, a lightly match-made night out for strangers. I don't think I've discovered a new portal to jump into and skip all the awkward early stages of making adult friends, but I had an energizing night with people who impressed me with their social ease and willingness.

The setup
When someone signs up for the French app Timeleft, they are greeted with a pleasantly detailed, yet broad personality test. First, a this-or-that rapid fire: things like, "Do you consider yourself more of a smart person or funny person?" (Smart.) "Would you rather listen to rock or rap?" (Rock.) "Are your opinions usually guided by logic and facts, or emotions and feelings?" (Tough, but I chose logic.) Next is a 1-10 rating scale in areas like intro/extroversion, stress, spirituality, loneliness, creativity, and habits.

Some of these, like "I enjoy going out with friends" and "How important is family to you?", felt neat and inspired concise answers. Others, like "I enjoy politically incorrect humor" and "I enjoy discussing politics/news," felt like minefields. I do enjoy a wicked joke, but are we talking politically incorrect like The Office, or politically incorrect like I got kicked out of my bookclub and believe no one can take a joke anymore? I selected 3 for political incorrectness, and 8 for discussing news and politics, angling hard toward sensitivity and away from potential, if unlikely belligerence.

According to Timeleft, its algorithm considers these answers and a few other logistics to pair users with a restaurant and with each other, resulting in two medium-size tables at each. Our group of seven met at 68 Degrees Kitchen in East Austin; It would have been eight, but one didn't show up. A Timeleft representative says the app overbooked from the intended five, expecting that some people would not show.

Quoted from Timeleft's algorithm explanation, it focuses on these "main ingredients":

  • "Language: Select yours for fluid dialogue[...]"
  • "Balance: A balanced mix of men and women. Note that Timeleft is favored by women, who often make up over 60 percent of participants (thus 4 per table). [Note: Although Timeleft only mentions men and women on this list, it also offered a nonbinary gender marker)"
  • "Temperament: A mix of introverts and extroverts for a balanced rhythm."
  • "Generation: An age gap of five to seven years for common life echoes."

Before we met, we got to see a basic rundown of who would be joining, detailing profession, nationality, and zodiac signs. (Not my ideal trifecta, considering that six-sevenths of us were American, and I'm fairly confident in my ability to interact with people born on any day.) I don't think it's incredibly open-minded of me, but I did feel slightly nervous that half the group worked in tech; I like tech workers, but can't say I really relate.

The dinner
An unexpected point of beauty in the often overwrought world of app-coordinated socializing: Beyond matching us and making our reservation, Timeleft left us to a normal dinner. We ordered from the regular menu, sat among the regular clientele, and handled the payment ourselves, opting to get in a group chat and Venmo one person for one clean bill. It offered a "game," which was really just a list of conversation topics; We only got through two before the topic changing ran cheerfully rampant.

A group of seven — although it did increase the likelihood that we would all like at least one of our companions — was perhaps a bit too large to get to know anyone especially well. We talked as a large group about as much as we split into side conversations. That was perfectly doable, but it made me wish a few times that we had a quiet table of three or four, where we didn't have to raise our voices past each other or inelegantly shift our attention from one conversation to the next.

We discovered a fair amount in common: places lived, schools attended, foods loved, places traveled, parties and underground scenes frequented. Although some of it dipped very lightly into taboos (Who has been to sex clubs? Who has been kicked out of restaurants?), most of these were surface-level parallels.

I learned that one of my dinner mates shared my lack of enthusiasm for school spirit as a concept, but couldn't say whether it was simply noncommittal or deep-rooted antiestablishmentarianism. I learned that at least one of my dinner mates likes to do yoga, but I don't know if they prefer to work up a sweat to EDM or study the Yoga Sutras.

It would be hard to suss out many of the deeper values behind these things, since seven people sitting at a dinner table together are generally trying to be agreeable — or at least entertaining. We're playing to the lowest common denominator, and we don't really know what our denominators are. We never found the gold thread running through — for instance, if we all rated our passion for working out similarly. But if we could narrow it down that much, it might be time to cut out the middle man and join a CrossFit gym.

The after-dinner drinks, and social patterns
After the small group dinners, all the diners from the various Timeleft tables in South and Central Austin were invited to meet up at Hold Out Brewing. Our group (less one person with a morning appointment) decided to head over. It was already 9:45 pm by the time we left the restaurant, having spent nearly 3 hours together already. We were surprised to see the dense crowd that gathered among the picnic tables.

In reporter mode, I started popping by different groups to find out how their night had gone. I talked to more than a dozen people, all of whom had entirely positive feedback about their evenings. The only criticism I heard was that one person felt the $16 "ticket" to the dinner (which was then priced à la carte) was a bit pricy.

Other groups went to Fresa's Chicken al Carbon, North Italia, and what I have to assume was QI Austin: Modern Asian Kitchen, although diners kept pronouncing it "key." Most groups had met members of the other table at the same restaurant, and some even wandered over during the dinner to see how the other half lived. Our group never found its counterpart.

It seemed to me that our group was objectively the most outgoing. Not only were we the last to arrive after our long dinner (as far as I noticed), but we were also (definitely) the last to leave the brewery. One duo from another group said theirs was a little awkward, in a pleasant way, so the two of them kept up most of the talking. One group said conversation flowed fairly easily, but when there was a lull, they returned to the provided conversation topics. It seemed about equally common to share meals or order for yourself, but our gang all shared everything.

Every group noticed their close ages beyond any other unifying factor. No one offered up any common threads, yet people responded in conversation as if they knew each other, with affectionate interjections like, "Of course he would say that!"

Brianna's gang at the Timeleft dinner in Austin. Photo by Brianna Caleri

Final impression
Most interesting to me was that nearly every single person I talked to all night, including in our own group, first heard about the dinner series on Instagram and just thought it sounded worth trying. Only one person specifically told me that they wanted to make new friends because theirs were mostly from work.

My biggest prejudice before the dinner was that the majority of attendees would either be new to Austin or in need of some outside help in making friends. I was right about the first thing; It seemed like most people had only been here a year or less.

But I was wrong about the second thing. In retrospect, it makes sense that a huge group of people who got together just to get together are deeply friendly. And while I still wouldn't expect long-lasting connections to come out of this Friendly People Convention, I can see that's not exactly what most people are aiming for, either.

The app has direct messaging, but I don't feel inclined to use it. Our group is already on an SMS thread, and I got so many new Instagram followers at the after-event that the next morning, I was not even sure who one of them was. We have started rating our compatibility on the app, and indicating who we would be open to seeing at future events, and who we wouldn't.

If I can have a silly dinner with someone who is investing in the world I want to see, I'll happily get silly. I'm sure some of the people I met yesterday are doing that, but I would have little way of knowing — or at least, a much harder time than if we had started on shared ground.

It's tempting, then, to see this as a way to meet people who are very different from you and expand your worldview. I do think it holds some promise for people who want to legitimately invest in becoming friends with each other and learning what's underneath the amiable surface, but I'm curious about where that sense of initiative will come from. Perhaps more regular dinners hold the answer.

I would be happy to see anyone I met yesterday again, if we end up in the same place at the same time. But I think my days of connecting with strangers over no common objective at all are limited.

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More information about Timeleft is available at timeleft.com, and the app is available via Apple's App Store and Google Play. Houston's next dinner happens Wednesday, June 19. Dinners happen weekly, and RSVPs must be made no later than Tuesday evening.

This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston energy data software platform expands into Europe, hires new execs

making transatlantic moves

It's official. Houston-based, AI-powered electricity forecasting and analytics services company Amperon Holdings is live in Europe.

The expansion, which Co-Founder and CEO Sean Kelly previously told InnovationMap about, is official, the company announced this month. In addition to the expansion, Amperon announced Jon Ecker as general manager, Europe, and Kelsey Hultberg as executive vice president, communications, and chief of staff.

Now, European companies that buy and sell energy in the renewable energy producers, financial institutions, and utilities markets can leverage Amperon's platform of AI and machine learning technologies to access short- and long-term forecasts for their individual meters and generation assets.

“As a warmer-than-expected June ushers in a hot summer, and increasing uncertainty looms for the calmer fall months due to the influx of wind and solar generation, we are eager to assist our European customers in navigating the power market volatility caused by heat waves, extreme weather events, and shifts in power usage across the region,” Kelly says in a news release.

“Our cutting-edge AI models are enabling our North American customers to benefit from data and asset optimization, on-site solar to commercial load management, and backup generation and we’re excited to bring these tools to our European customers,” he continues.

Leading the new initiative for Amperon is Ecker , who previously served as an executive at energy market simulation software company Energy Exemplar and as CEO of real-time energy data provider Genscape, which is now owned by Wood Mackenzie. He also co-founded at Energy Velocity, an energy data and software company now owned by Hitachi Energy.

“Amperon is providing North American, and now European renewable energy markets, with the critical tools they need to optimize their clean energy operations and support grid reliability,” Ecker says in the release. “As Europe faces high temperatures and rising power demand this summer, power market participants will need precise energy forecasting, and Amperon is looking forward to delivering these critical tools to help participants succeed.”

Hultberg joins Amperon from Houston-based Sunnova Energy International, where she was executive vice president of corporate communications and sustainability.

Founded in 2018, Amperon closed its series B round at $20 million last fall. This year, the company Amperon announced that it replatformed its AI-powered energy analytics technology onto Microsoft Azure. The partnership with the tech giant allows Amperon's energy sector clients to use Microsoft's analytics stack with Amperon data.

"For Amperon, 2024 is the year of partnerships," Kelly shares on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "I think you'll see partnership announcements here in the next couple of quarters."

Houston expert: How adopting business strategies in the education sector can improve results

houston voices

It’s no secret: K-12 public schools in the U.S. face major challenges. Resources are shrinking. Costs are climbing. Teachers are battling burnout. Student outcomes are declining.

There are many areas of concern.

Some difficulties are intangible, inescapable and made worse by crises like the COVID-19 pandemic. Some can be fixed or alleviated by wisely allocating resources. And others — like a lack of strategic focus — can be avoided altogether.

It’s this final area, strategic focus, that researchers Vikas Mittal (Rice Business) and Jihye Jung (UT-San Antonio) address in a groundbreaking study. According to Mittal and Jung, superintendents and principals misallocate vast amounts of time and resources trying to appease their many stakeholders — students, parents, teachers, board trustees, community leaders, state evaluators, college recruiters, potential employers, etc.

Instead, Mittal and Jung show, administrators need to put their entire focus on one key stakeholder — the “customer,” i.e. students and families.

It may sound strange to call students and families “customers” in the context of public education. After all, 5th-period Spanish isn’t like buying an iPhone or fast food. The classroom is not transactional. Students and caregivers are part of a broader relational context that most directly involves teachers and peers. And students are expected to contribute to that context.

But K-12 public funds are tied to enrollment and attendance numbers. This means the success or failure of a school or school district ultimately comes down to “customer” satisfaction.

Beware the Stakeholder Appeasement Trap

Here’s what happens when students and families become dissatisfied with their school:

As conditions deteriorate, families (who can afford to) may choose to homeschool or move their children to private or better-performing public schools. As a result, enrollment revenue decreases, which forces administrators to cut costs. Cut costs lead to worsened performance and lower satisfaction among students and families. Lower satisfaction leads to further enrollment loss, which leads to more cost-cutting. And so on. (Schools need about 500-600 students to break even.)

It’s a vicious downward spiral, and it’s not unusual for schools to become trapped in it. To avoid this vortex, administrators end up adopting a “spray and pray” or “adopt and hope” approach, pursuing various stakeholder agendas in hopes that one of them will be the key to institutional success. Group A wants stronger security. Group B wants improved internet access. Group C wants better facilities. Group D wants to expand athletics.

It’s an understandable impulse to make everyone happy. However, Mittal and Jung find that the “stakeholder appeasement” approach dilutes strategic focus, wastes resources and creates a bloat of ineffective initiatives.

Initiative bloat isn't a benign problem. The labor of implementing programs inevitably falls on teachers and frontline staff, which can result in mediocre performance and burnout. As initiatives multiple over time, communication lines become strained and, distracted by the administration's efforts to please everyone, teachers and frontline staff fail to satisfy students and families.

Pay Attention to Lift Potential

Using data from administrator interviews and more than 10,000 parent surveys, Mittal and Jung find that students and families only value a few strategic areas. By far the most important is family and community engagement, followed by academics and teachers. The least important, somewhat surprisingly, is extracurriculars like athletics programs.

The assumption that athletics would be high on the list of student and family priorities raises a crucial point in the study. Mittal and Jung note that it’s a serious error to assume that the more a strategic area is mentioned the more it drives customer value.

“Conflating the two — salience and lift potential — is the single biggest factor that can mislead strategy planning,” the researchers say.

A customer-focused strategy prioritizes lift potential — meaning it allocates budgets, people and time to the areas that have the highest capacity to increase customer value, as measured by customer satisfaction. If family and community engagement is the most important strategic area, then savvy administrators will invest in the “execution levers” that improve it.

For instance, Mittal and Jung find that allowing input on school policies is the most effective lever for demonstrating family and community engagement. Another important strategic area is improving the quality of teachers, and one of the most effective ways of doing this is to emphasize their academic qualifications.

Just as important as instituting effective customer-focused initiatives is de-emphasizing those that are ineffective. It can be a difficult process to stop and de-emphasize initiatives, however ineffective. But ultimately, the benefit is that teachers and frontline staff will be able to concentrate on the execution levers that matter.

This strategic transformation can’t happen overnight. Developing the framework will require a school district 18 to 24 months, Mittal and Jung estimate. Embedding it into practice can take an additional 12 to 18 months. For example, it would involve changing the way senior administrators, school principals and teachers are held accountable. Instead of emphasizing standardized test scores, which do not add to customer satisfaction, it’s more effective to concentrate on input factors that directly impact the quality of academics and learning.

To help schools develop and implement a customer-focused strategy, future research can focus on frameworks for guiding schools to maximize the areas of value that students and families care about most.

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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom. For more, see Mittal and Jung, “Revitalizing educational institutions through customer focus.” Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science (2024): https://doi.org/10.1007/s11747-024-01007-y.