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Digital Tech: The Future Workforce
August 14th, 2020
By Melissa Fox

When the coronavirus pandemic caused the economic downturn last spring, nearly 21 million people lost their jobs nationwide. Though some of these jobs have been recovered, many workers are still unemployed.

As we have mentioned in a previous blog, when a recession hits, many look towards continuing their education to remain competitive in the job market. As the workforce becomes automated, one industry many are looking towards is digital technology to give them that leg up on the competition. 

We spoke with Dr. Edmund "Butch" Herod, Ph.D., Director of the West Houston Institute, Houston Community College's Center for Innovation, Design, and Creativity, about what it looks like to get into this new field and how it is shaping the future workforce. 

Houston's economy and industries are being reshaped by technology, impacting talent needs. What new skill sets are the most valuable to have for a candidate to be and stay competitive in today's workforce?

We have entered a unique period in human history of unprecedented technological change, made possible by computerization and digitization.

The consequences of this rapid change are that many currently existing jobs are becoming obsolete while new opportunities and newly created positions are replacing them. In 2013 an Oxford study predicted that 47% of current jobs in the United States are at risk of being automated. Whether the percentage is higher or lower, or whether it happens quickly or slowly is the subject of much debate. But regardless of precise numbers or years, the truth is that new jobs are being created that have never existed previously, many jobs are disappearing, and ever-increasing numbers of positions demand new digital fluencies. So, the employment market is telling us that new skillsets and new mindsets are essential for both current jobs and jobs for the future. Stated succinctly, this means innovative and creative mindsets and digital skillsets. And, we must not overlook the importance of soft skills, which are things like flexibility, collaboration, innovative and entrepreneurial thinking, and a capacity for problem-solving. 

The West Houston Institute is a new kind of learning environment. What makes it so unique? How will this new way learning prepare the future workforce?  

The West Houston Institute was designed holistically as a center for innovation, creativity, design, and entrepreneurship to reimagine and reinvent higher education essentially. To that end, each of the constituent parts work together, in synergy, to complement the others. It includes a 10,000 plus square feet makerspace that we refer to as the "IDEAStudio" (IDEAS standing for Innovation, Design, Entrepreneurship, in Arts and Sciences) that houses traditional tech tools with digital interfaces such as a woodshop, machine shop, metal shop and high tech tools such as 32 3D printers of varying types, laser cutters, vinyl fabrication tools, an art space, layout area, electronics area, and many types of software. This area is also home to the IDEAS Academy for students, where the skills referenced previously are taught to students. The West Houston Institute contains a very unique "Collaboratorium" which is a facilitated collaborative solution design space where design thinking is integral to ideation activities. The Institute also houses an augmented reality/virtual reality lab, experimental classrooms with state of the art tools and furniture for active learning, a "Learning Commons" which includes the digital library, labs, and a One Button Studio, a state of the art undergraduate science research lab, and an auditorium for hosting conferences, seminars and events in support of the college and the innovation mission. The Institute was developed over many years by my team and I with significant collaborative input and the adaptation of best practices from many other institutions. 

This way of learning is the future of learning, in my opinion. We must engage our students differently, we must teach creativity and design, we must provide them with innovative and entrepreneurial mindsets, and we must provide them with digital fabrication and design tools as well as other digital skills. 

Digital technology is a broad term to describe a lot of different areas of work, from analytics to coding to graphic design. What should someone consider when trying to decide which avenue they want to pursue?

Great question. No one should enter any career field they dislike since they will ultimately be miserable and make others miserable as well, particularly loved ones and friends. That said, we know that digital skills are increasingly employment requisites, and as such, students must learn them and develop them to be successful in the modern workplace. As a career selection, there are many potential pathways. Ultimately, students should examine possibilities and experiment by taking short courses in areas of prospective interest.

Opportunities can be further be narrowed by considerations of personal interests and skills, types of work preferred, and environments sought. Someone who likes to move around and play with equipment should probably not consider programming but might consider CNC machining or even certain parts of networking. Those who hate meticulous types of work where accuracy is crucial should probably not choose coding or programming. People who love numbers, discovery, and inferences about data might consider analytics.

There are tools that can help narrow the choices based on personality traits and characteristics, but take the time to determine the types of work you enjoy the most. 
Many people that are considering going into a program have not been in a traditional classroom in a long time. What advice do you have for those that are returning to school after a bit of a hiatus?

Two members of my immediate family, my wife and daughter, returned to school after many years of work to acquire digital skills and pursue different careers. In the case of my daughter, she had a liberal arts degree and a successful business that she sold then returned to school to study coding. My wife left a medical career after 20 years to pursue networking as a career and has been doing that successfully for some time now. 

In terms of advice, my daughter was hired by a Fortune 500 company because she had diverse and different skills, inclusive of the digital ones. The more skills you have, the more diverse your knowledge, the more valuable you will be. Her return to school was comparatively easier since she had been out about eight years before returning. By contrast, my wife had been out of school for 20 plus years but wanted a transition to something different. In her case, the transition was especially difficult since she initially went from a well-paid position to one that paid $8.00 an hour. To say that it was devastating to the family budget is an understatement, but we are both very happy we made the sacrifice. Understand that you "may" have to take a pay cut to pursue your goals, and you definitely need family support. Both my wife and daughter told me when queried that without family support, the return to school would not have been possible. This is equally true even when attending school part-time, and continuing work in your present occupation. There will be significant stressors on time, energy, and existing commitments that will make things difficult. 

Work-life balance can be a struggle for many of us. Do you have any tips for those that are adding going back to school into this balance?

As alluded to previously, school is a commitment in which you are, in many ways committing your family as well. Make certain you have discussed the return to school at length with your entire household, and mention that everyone will be making sacrifices. It is important to have this conversation before commencement so that everyone is clear about expectations and the needed commitments and sacrifices. 

Be purposeful in carving out time for others. I knew a professor who was seen as the first person to call anytime a major initiative was being considered. He was incredibly busy. I asked him to attend an event one evening and he responded, "At what time"? When I told him the time, he said he could not participate in because that was the time he had scheduled to play with his young child. I asked him if he had his family on a schedule and thought that if so, that was unusual. He said he did not, but that he dedicated time each day to spend with the family as a guarantee, that there were lots of other times as well, but that scheduled time was sacrosanct and inviolate.

Make certain that you take time for others, but also make certain you have some personal downtime for yourself as well. We must nurture our spirit, allow time for thoughtful reflection, for ideation, creativity, and simply being. A life out of balance is often an unhappy one, and unfortunately, in many cases, a shortened one. 

Houston has seen quite the tech boom in recent years. In your opinion, what makes the region a great place for those that are looking to begin a career in digital technology?

Houston is an incredible place to begin a career in digital technology. We are an international city with one of the most diverse populations in the nation. That diversity drives innovation, which in turn creates opportunities since many, if not most, of the innovations involve digital technologies and skills. While it is true that other cities and regions, such as Silicon Valley, have been previously recognized for their digital opportunities, that is changing. The combination of high taxes, expensive housing, and the migration of businesses to less costly areas is creating new opportunities for other places, such as Houston. 

Fortunately, Houston is now supporting innovation in new and important ways. The conceptual development and creation of the Innovation Corridor and an innovation ecosystem is an essential step in that direction. Of course, Houston is already a leader in innovation through the energy sector, the Texas Medical Center, and NASA. Lesser known to many, but essential, is that Houston ranks as one of the nation's top manufacturing cities. That industry has been increasingly computerized through the advent of 3D printers and CNC machines. All of these areas increasingly require personnel with digital skills and digital fluencies, thereby creating more opportunities. 

Finally, we are home to several universities and multiple community colleges (such as HCC), all of whom are offering increasing numbers and types of courses to prepare students for the digital world.  

As a vibrant, world-class city with a passion for creating and providing opportunities for all, Houston is an excellent choice to begin a digital career. 

Learn more about the Houston's digital technology industry and Houston's upskill workforce.

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