Texas Workforce Challenges: How Virtual Learning Can Help

The following is part one of a three-part summary of Texas 2036 Senior Vice President of Policy and Advocacy John Hryhorchuk’s testimony to the Texas Commission on Virtual Education on June 29, 2022.

Established by House Bill 3643 (87R), the Texas Commission on Virtual Education is charged with developing and making recommendations regarding the delivery of virtual education in the public school system and state funding for virtual education under the Foundation School Program

Consisting of 13 appointed members, the commission meets once a month to review the state of virtual education in Texas and recommend statutory changes regarding the delivery and funding of virtual education. The Commission is taking a broad look at the past and current uses of virtual education in Texas and the innovative ways it’s being used in other states, including options like self-paced, competency-based, and blended learning. 

Recently, Texas 2036 Senior Vice President of Policy and Advocacy John Hryhorchuk was invited to provide testimony on the current workforce challenges in Texas and how virtual education can be leveraged to improve college and career readiness in high school. 

Texas 2036 Policy Advisor Madison Yandell breaks down the testimony below.

Texas is facing significant challenges in the labor market, driven by broken traditional pathways to the workforce for the majority of Texans. However, the 88th Legislative Session is poised to drive systemic change to meet workforce demand and provide value to students through virtual education.

Labor Market Challenges in Texas

Texas continues to create more jobs than peer states and the rest of the nation. But over the past decade, most of the job growth has been in jobs that do not pay a self-sufficient wage.

Our growth also hasn’t been even across the state. While the Texas Triangle — the region consisting of the Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio, and Austin metropolitan areas — has driven recent economic growth, we’re seeing net declines in job growth across more than half of Texas counties.

Although the Texas jobs engine continues to run, and unemployment drops back down from pandemic highs, employers find themselves in a situation where they can’t find qualified workers to fill the jobs they need to grow their businesses. When you consider that many of these jobs require skills that aren’t readily found in our workforce, you start to see gaps that can create drags on future economic growth.

For the past few decades, Texas has relied on the annual net migration of about 240,000 newcomers to meet its workforce needs. Migrants have had substantially better educational attainment with twice the number of people with a bachelor’s degree or above compared to native Texans. 

Challenges to Traditional Pathways

The students of today are the workers of tomorrow, but they have faced significant impacts to their learning throughout the pandemic that will translate to our state’s workforce.

From 2019 to 2021, there was a 17-point decline in the percentage of students meeting grade level in math and 5-point decline in reading. COVID learning loss hit our schools when academic performance wasn’t exactly at the peak of the mountain. In 2019, the most recent year for results, only 30% of 4th graders were at grade level in reading on the national standardized test, and just 44% of students were proficient in math, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. 

While Texas has steadily improved its graduation rate over the last 20 years with 90% of students graduating in four years, it’s become clear that a high school diploma just isn’t enough anymore. 

As recent as 2011, more than half of all jobs in Texas that paid $65,000 or more annually were held by Texans with a high school diploma, GED, or below. By 2019, that number dropped to 11%.

The data shows what many of us know to be true: For younger generations, you need some sort of postsecondary credential, such as workforce-aligned certificates and certifications, to earn a self-sufficient wage in today’s economy. Currently less than 30% of Texas high school graduates earn a postsecondary credential within six years. 

By contrast, the 60×30 efforts — Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board’s mission to support the state’s higher education plan for at least 60% of Texans ages 25-34 to have a certificate or degree by 2030 — are guided by research showing that by 2030, 62% of jobs in the state’s economy are going to require education and skills beyond high school.

COVID-19 also had a significant impact on postsecondary enrollment. In recent years, Texas’ four-year university enrollment has plateaued. And during the pandemic, Texas Community colleges have seen a nearly 15% drop in enrollment, equivalent to a loss of about 225,000 students. 

Particularly concerning for the workforce is the decline in continuing education and technical college enrollment. And one of the of the bigger emerging trends is a staggering decline in the perceived value of higher education, which is surfacing while economic data is saying we need more postsecondary education to meet our state’s workforce needs.

A key part of that value conversation is workforce alignment: We need to ensure that the skills and credentials students obtain have market value so they can lead productive, self-sufficient lives.

Our data bears this out: By large supermajorities, Texans want their education system oriented toward helping students achieve good-paying jobs. And if you talk to employers, these sentiments are reciprocal — they want future employees who have the in-demand skills necessary to grow the economy.

To learn more about the virtual education commission, visit Texas Education Agency.

Read part II here.