PHARR, RGV – The most popular career courses being taken by students in Texas public schools are cosmetology and floral design, a fact that has a State Board of Education member flummoxed.

“If you look at the career and technology clusters that exist the most popular courses being taken are cosmetology and floral design. I have nothing against cosmetology or floral design. I need to get my hair cut this week and I need to buy flowers for Valentine’s Day,” said Rubén Cortez, Jr.

“But, as I learned from Exxon Mobil, there are going to be a lot of engineering and oil and gas jobs coming up that pay really, really, well. Upwards of $50,000 a year.”

Cortez made his comments in an exclusive interview with the Rio Grande Guardian following the swearing in of his second term as State Board of Education member for South Texas. The event took place at Aida Escobar Elementary School in Pharr and Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia administered the oath of office.

Last November, Cortez was invited by Congressman Rubén Hinojosa to be part of a Rio Grande Valley delegation that visited with Exxon Mobil executives in Houston and Baytown. The delegation, which included college presidents, educators and business leaders, visited Lee Community College and San Jacinto College to see how their workforce training projects, implemented with Exxon Mobil financial support, operate.

The visit came about following a meeting between Hinojosa and Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson. Hinojosa is hoping Exxon Mobil will invest heavily in workforce training in the Valley.

“The visit was a real eye-opener for me,” Cortez said “We had people from Exxon telling us that they are possibly going to be hiring 50,000 to 80,000 people in the next seven years in this state and that our schools do not have a big enough labor pool for them to pick from because our students are taking the wrong classes. That was the message they gave us.”

Cortez said he does not blame school counselors. He said they need more guidance themselves.

“Not all but some schools are failing to look at the labor market reports and the job market reports. Until somebody gives you that information, how are you supposed to know?” Cortez asked. “It really makes you wonder, are our schools filling seats? Are they really short staffed to the extent that guidance counselors are not properly putting students in courses that will actually lead to a top career? As a parent you surely want your child on a career path that will lead to a profession where he or she can join the middle class. I know I do.”

To help bring industry and school districts together, along with parents and students, Cortez is hosting a major conference at Region 1 Education Service Center in Edinburg on January 16. Career path initiatives will be one of the topics up for discussion.

“If you have industry leaders saying we are going to hire ‘X’ number of people and that the starting pay is $50,000, what are we doing? We need to let our students know. Now, maybe the jobs are not in the Rio Grande Valley but they are in Eagle Ford Shale,” Cortez said.

Cortez said he is excited about the possibilities of collaboration with Exxon Mobil.

“Rex Tillerson of Exxon Mobil is saying ‘I want to come in and help the region, to help train our workforce.’ Hopefully, it will happen. South Texas College would be the fiscal agent, and Texas Southmost College and Texas State Technical College in Harlingen will be part of it. But my point is why are we waiting for students to get to community college when a lot of this we can do at the high school level? We need our school districts to know what is happening. God willing, if this money makes it down to South Texas College and STC becomes the fiscal agent, my role is to make sure every public school in the Valley is aware.”

Cortez said the event on Jan. 16 is also part of a bigger statewide initiative he prompted the State Board of Education to begin.

“The last time the State Board of Education published a long range plan for education was in 2000. Now we are going to do it again and I want the Valley to take the lead. I want all the higher education institutions, the school districts, parents, students, healthcare, business, the Federation of Teachers, everyone to participate,” Cortez said.

“Look how House Bill 5, the biggest overhaul of education in a decade in Texas, came about. It started when a legislator asked H.D. Chambers, the superintendent of Alief ISD, what he would do with education if he was King for the Day. It started with notes the superintendent made on the back of a napkin in a restaurant. I want the Valley to initiate the next big conversation we have. With this summit we have the potential to start to make state education policy.”