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How FIRST in Texas Helps Solve the Middle Skills Gap


The experts are looking into the future of work, and there is a growing demand for middle-skill workers, but there’s not enough trained personnel to fill that demand.

The gap in the number of jobs available and the people ready to fill them is not news. However, it does require that stakeholders from education to employers take steps towards a solution. It also means there is a tremendous employment opportunity for future workers in Texas who are willing to acquire training beyond high school.

The trick is delivering that training to every community across Texas. The numbers reflect how challenging this can be.

The Numbers Don’t Lie: There’s Definitely a Middle Skills Gap

Middle/Trade Skills Worker operating machineryThere is an abundance of middle-skill jobs out there. As noted by SSEC and their analysis of a Brookings Institution report entitled “The Hidden STEM Economy,” half of all STEM jobs are for employees who do not have a four-year college degree. These jobs pay higher (as much as 10 percent) than other jobs with similar educational requirements.

The fact is there are not enough applicants who have the proper training and experience.

The National Skills Coalition (NSC), in their 2017 middle skills fact sheet, states the following numbers:

  • Between 2014 to 2024, 50 percent of all job openings will be middle-skill jobs.
  • Middle-skill jobs account for 56 percent of the Texas labor market, yet only 42 percent of workers in Texas have adequate middle-skill level training.

Part of the challenge is that training opportunities have not been given to every demographic. Despite these obstacles, the opportunities to create an economic boom are right around the corner.

As noted by the NSC, one crucial step for filling the middle-skills gap is “work-based learning programs like apprenticeship and career and technical education (CTE) with a worksite component — programs that blend worksite and classroom learning to prepare workers with the skills employers need.”

Along a similar line, bringing hands-on STEM learning programs into schools is another critical step to open the door of middle-skills to every corner of the Texas population.

This is where FIRST in Texas comes in.

The Good News: FIRST in Texas is Already Tackling the Problem

FIRST in Texas has worked hard to bring hands-on, immersive STEM learning experiences to kids of all ages. Its four programs cover the gamut of ages and skill levels, and each program introduces essential skills and hands-on experience that will give students a huge advantage for pursuing a middle-skills STEM career in the future.

The four programs are:

FIRST® LEGO League Jr. introduces STEM concepts to kids in K-4th grade using LEGO® elements. Along the way the kids learn teamwork, the excitement of working with science and technology, and core values such as sharing, respect, and critical thinking.

FIRST® LEGO League excites kids in 4th-8th grade with a little more advanced STEM concepts and LEGO® projects. The students research a real-world problem and must develop a solution, and then design, build, and program a robot using LEGO® MINDSTORMS®.

FIRST® Tech Challenge has students in grades 7-12 learn to design, build, program, and operate robots. These more advanced robots require even more hard and soft skills from students to reach a solution to each season’s game challenge. It’s very hard at certain points, but it’s extremely fun for the teams.

FIRST® Robotics Competition is strictly for high school students in grades 9-12. This program is what you might call the “big show.” Here is a brief description of what high school students accomplish during the build and competitive season:

“Under strict rules, limited resources, and an intense six-week time limit, teams of 20 or more students are challenged to raise funds, design a team ‘brand,’ do community outreach for which they can win awards, hone teamwork skills, and build and program industrial-size robots to play a difficult field game against like-minded competitors. It’s as close to real-world engineering as a student can get. Volunteer professional mentors lend their time and talents to guide each team….”

Data reports on the effects of these programs show some amazing trends:

  • FIRST in Texas participants are more likely to show gains on STEM-related outcomes than students in the comparison group.
  • Girls who participate in the FIRST® programs continue to show significantly greater impacts than their male counterparts. In other words, these programs are opening the STEM career door for girls in a big way.
  • Students who participate in these programs show significantly higher interest in majoring in computer science, engineering, and robotics than comparison students, and they are 2.6 times more likely to take an engineering course.

A Win-Win Opportunity for Middle Skill Workers and the Community

You can’t go wrong supporting organizations such as FIRST in Texas who are working hard to tackle the middle skills gap.

Of course, FIRST in Texas is not the only one who is trying to make a difference. Corporations and government organizations such as the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC) are doing big things to help close this gap. TWC’s programs such as the Jobs Y’All campaign and their Skills Development Fund are making waves across the state. The Skills Development Fund is a solutions source for small business and registered apprenticeship programs. It is a premier job-training program that creates local training opportunities customized for the needs of the community.

However you decide to pitch in to help solve this middle skills gap, whether it’s volunteering for FIRST in Texas or becoming a partner, your investment will be a win-win for Texas.