The labor pool in Texas is as deep as it is wide, but the demands of a growing population expose shortages in key occupations where the number of available, educated workers is showing signs of receding.
Jobs requiring postsecondary education and specific technical skill training will form a significant component of a Texas labor force anticipated to grow 13.3 percent by 2030, far above the 3.7 percent estimated increase for the U.S., according to an annual report (PDF) by Projections Managing Partnership for the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC).
The report notes the hardships employers are enduring as more baby boomers retire — a generation that saturated many industries for decades. Those exits, combined with enhanced employment requirements, are leading to not only increased demand but also higher standards for hiring educated and skilled workers.
These trends have prompted institutions of higher education (IHEs) to develop innovative strategies to continue to supply graduates qualified to work in the industries within their field of study.
In fields such as teaching and nursing, fewer students are enrolling and graduating from the state’s IHEs or completing their degrees at levels that keep pace with projected demand. Yet an immediate need exists for qualified registered nurses (RNs) and teachers in the state’s workforce.
The number of RN students enrolled in one of 146 IHEs in Texas dropped from 70,268 in 2019 to 65,914 in 2020 to 63,084 in 2021, according to TWC data. RN students who graduated from these programs rose by almost 400 during the same time (Exhibit 1).
Source: Texas Workforce Commission Labor Market and Career Information Department
Hospitals are reporting bleaker numbers in the nursing profession, as exhausting working conditions are leading to skyrocketing vacancies.
The RN vacancy rate rose from 5.9 percent in 2019 to a staggering 17.6 percent in 2022, according to a recent survey (PDF) of hospitals conducted by the Texas Center for Nursing Workforce Studies. Of 84,817 full-time RN positions, hospitals reported 14,910 were vacant.
Enrollment and graduation rates for a combined 26 teaching categories, ranging from science teachers to language instructors to fine arts educators, saw a drop from 2019 to 2021, according to TWC data (Exhibit 2).
Source: Texas Workforce Commission Labor Market and Career Information Department
Attrition, too, has played a part in the changing labor landscape. A Texas Education Agency study (PDF) released in August 2022 found that Texas lost 42,839 teachers to attrition in the 2021-22 academic year (11.57 percent) while it hired 42,973 (11.60 percent). Prior to that academic year, new hires outpaced departures by a much greater margin.
Educational services are no exception when it comes to the need for a better educated workforce. This demand is driven by the desire for a more “knowledge-based economy” and by a surging population resulting in more student enrollments.
Texas A&M University plays a significant role in supplying degreed and certified graduates for Texas’ workforce, as it is one of the largest universities in the nation. Its four-year graduation rate is approaching 60 percent, and its six-year graduation rate is closing in on 83 percent (Exhibit 3).
Source: Texas A&M Office of Academic and Business Performance Analytics
The College Station campus received 53,000 freshman applications for admission in the 2021-22 school year. Because of a set number of student slots and the competitiveness of several of its world-class programs, the admissions office was unable to accept all those students into their preferred schools, according to C.J. Woods, senior associate vice president for admissions and undergraduate recruitment and outreach at Texas A&M University.
University President M. Katherine Banks and her staff connected with industries and communities and gathered feedback from applicant surveys to inform the development of two new College Station campus programs designed to address workforce shortages and boost applications to underfilled majors at Texas A&M without increasing school size, hiring additional faculty or incurring costs. Under Banks’ direction, the newly formed Division of Academic Strategic Collaborations created the Completion Admissions and Opportunity Admissions programs, which will accept applications in early 2023 for the fall 2023 semester.
Completion Admissions Program
The program encourages former Texas A&M students who did not earn a degree or certificate to return to campus and enroll in a “best-fit” major or appropriate certificate program. Eligible students must have completed a minimum of 90 credit hours toward a degree and be in good standing with the university.
Texas A&M leadership touted the benefits of additional degreed or certified graduates entering or returning to the workforce.
“Because of the workforce needs in our state, we wanted to put together a program with as little bureaucracy as possible to get those students back to our institution to finish a degree that works for both Texas A&M and the student,” says Susan Ballabina, senior vice president and chief external affairs officer for Texas A&M University.
The university is targeting Texas residents who, for various reasons, ceased their studies before degree completion. Members of the military who had to suspend their studies to answer the call of duty are prime candidates for this program.
“We have a strong affinity for the military here due to the Corps of Cadets, and we want to provide maximum access and opportunity for those who serve our country,” explains Woods. “We’re looking at admissible students who have a love and affinity for Texas A&M.”
Opportunity Admissions Program
This program opens the door to wait-list freshmen or transfer students who are qualified to attend the university, but their first-choice major programs at the College Station campus are full.
Admissions officials will help these students select a program from about 40 “Opportunity Majors” across colleges and in a broad spectrum of disciplines, such as education, science and languages, that are below the average student-to-faculty ratios. The university plans to update this list yearly to reflect changes in demand and allow the maximum number of students to enroll.
“As the population in Texas continues to grow, Texas A&M University is committed to keeping pace and finding new ways to open its doors to qualified students,” Banks says. “The Opportunity Admissions Program is a perfect example of this in action, where we will enable more qualified students to obtain a degree or certification from Texas A&M.”
Woods underscores the value of attending a four-year land grant institution with a national reputation.
“We’re hearing from some people that the return on investment in higher ed is not where it needs to be,” he says. “These programs will emphasize getting the degree and then looking at the opportunities that will present themselves.”
After the first cycle in fall 2023, university staff will assess participation and make necessary changes. If a previously underfilled school reaches maximum capacity, it will drop off the Opportunity Majors list to make room for another school with unfilled student slots.
Texas A&M officials say their measure of success will be an increased number of students gaining access to the university’s programs and obtaining degrees or certificates that better prepare them to enter or return to the workforce.
The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) is setting its sights on addressing workforce shortages by elevating the number of Texans who possess credentials of value over the next eight years.
Its strategic plan — Building a Talent Strong Texas — targets 60 percent attainment of a postsecondary credential of value by 2030 for Texans ages 25-64.
“The heart of the matter is that expectations for higher education have changed, faster than anyone expected,” Texas Higher Education Commissioner Harrison Keller says. “Now, there is a significant disconnect between the scale of our needs in each of these areas versus what our higher education institutions and policies were designed to do.”
Keller presented an overview of the strategic plan at the Texas Higher Education Leadership Conference on Dec. 8, 2022, in which he pointed to three challenges higher education is facing:
To address these challenges, the strategic plan seeks to establish a statewide repository with information on all credentials offered by Texas institutions of higher education and modernize the state’s educational and workforce data infrastructure, including improved collection of occupation-specific data.
In addition, the plan will leverage the work of the THECB, Texas Workforce Commission and Texas Education Agency through the Tri-Agency Workforce Initiative to boost high-quality education and workforce training opportunities.
As the gulf between job vacancies and qualified workers threatens to widen, the demand for degreed and certified graduates intensifies.
The health care crisis has forced some hospitals and nursing homes to use contract labor at significantly higher costs (PDF) or exhaust available staff who are working longer shifts and spiraling toward burnout.
Heading into the Regular Session of the 88th Legislature, the Texas Hospital Association (THA) prioritized support of state funding increases for training, retention and loan repayment programs that benefit Texas’ physicians, nurses, behavioral health professionals and allied health professionals. THA also sought support for continued workplace safety, retention and violence reduction strategies to maintain a strong health care workforce.
Texas school districts are resorting to employing uncertified instructors or raising their student-to-teacher ratios. Meanwhile, more teachers are leaving, or contemplating leaving, the profession. At a December 2022 meeting, several Texas Teacher Vacancy Task Force working groups focused on compensation, training and support, and working conditions as they shaped preliminary policy recommendations.
Mounting workforce shortages are placing the health and education of Texans at risk. Decisive action by state agencies and IHEs will help mitigate the consequences, with higher education playing a pivotal role in stemming the rising tide of workforce shortages now and in the future.
“Texas is leading the nation in job growth at a rate of 5.4 percent, and many of our former students stay and work here in Texas,” says John Sharp, chancellor of The Texas A&M University System. “With these new programs, Texas A&M will be preparing the workforce of the future to address this growth in a number of key areas.” FN
Read more on the labor shortages affecting the state’s trucking industry and the nursing industry in our Fiscal Notes archives.