HOUSTON — Approximately five years ago in Houston, a conversation started between business leaders and higher education institutions. Led by the Greater Houston Partnership, an organization that fosters economic growth in the area, the discussions focused on the need for a qualified workforce.
The UpSkill Houston program was born out of these conversations. The program exposes students to “middle skills” job opportunities that require some kind of postsecondary education, and is currently offered at schools like San Jacinto College, a community college. The school is in regular communication with industry leaders to gear its two-year associate degrees into a more agile workforce in fields such as maritime, automotive, electrical and medical, among others.
We spoke with Adrian Boutte, a graduate of the program. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
What is your title, and how did you get your start?
I'm an automation specialist for Occidental Petroleum in the Permian Basin. When I was 18, I worked in petrochemical plants for five years as an electrician. That was on the construction site, but I always wanted to learn more. I knew how to install and wire up stuff, but I became more interested in learning how everything worked once it was installed. There were instrument technicians there on the job, and they were making more money than me. So I asked, "How did you get this job?" That's how I learned about the 2-year associate degrees.
When did you obtain your degree?
I started the program fall of 2017 and finished it 2019 in the spring semester. It is a two-year degree, but I finished it in a year and a half. I took the TV out of my room. It was a lot of long days and long nights, but in the end, it worked out. I sacrificed all my fun time, and I just focused.
You got hired in May. How did you manage to catch the eye of such a large company?
Occidental Petroleum was looking for people to come to their West Texas plant. They came with a mission to recruit. I applied, and that's how I got this job. As an automation specialist, I work 12 hours for seven days straight, and I get seven days off. My company flies my colleagues and me from Houston to Midland. It is a lifestyle you have to get used to, but I like it.
What does your job consist of?
My job is to get anything that works automatically to make sure it works properly. If a system does not turn on, it is an electrician's problem, but if it does and is not doing what it should, then it is my duty to fix it. I also work with communications. I make sure the radios in the plant work properly.
How relevant were the concepts you learned in school to the work you perform today?
The concepts they taught me at school are totally relevant. They set the boundaries to how everything is supposed to work. When you know how to use instruments, and you see these meters, and you know how they operate and how they send signals back and forth, then you have the foundation to be successful. San Jacinto College gave me that foundation. When I'm at work running through troubleshooting issues, I take the stuff I learned in the classroom, and I apply it here.
What are your thoughts regarding a two-year associate degree versus a four-year degree?
There are lots of jobs out there that do not necessarily need a four-year degree to be successful. It does help, but I would say experience counts even more. I know a lot of people with four-year degrees, and they can't find a job. I think that what makes a company successful is not a team of all four-year degree people. Everyone has a role to play, from the CEO to management, to engineers, to technicians, to contractors.
What outlook do you have for your future?
I want to learn more. I like where I am now since my schedule is amazing, but I know that automation is evolving an everyone is using it. Enhancements in automation are going to change the way we do things in the future, and at one point, I want to be an automation engineer.
This article is part of NBC’s coverage of "NBC News Learn Presents: Education Now Houston," a two-hour live community event supported by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. For more information, go to nbcnews.com/learnhouston.