SOUTH PADRE ISLAND, Texas – Texas A&M System Regent Mike Hernandez says his university plans to have a much bigger presence in the lower Rio Grande Valley.

In an exclusive interview with the Rio Grande Guardian, Hernandez pointed out that A&M is expanding in the upper Valley through its McAllen Higher Education Center. Now, he said, it is time to focus on the lower Valley.

“When the governor appointed me he said he wanted me to be a voice for the Valley. I took that seriously and that is exactly what I am doing,” Hernandez said.

“McAllen? A&M has done a fair amount there and will continue to do more. But, Cameron County has been a little bit neglected and I want to change that, especially with all the stuff that is going on at the Port (of Brownsville).”

Hernandez made his comments following a speech Texas A&M Chancellor John Sharp made on South Padre Island. During a luncheon hosted by the Rio Grande Valley Partnership and held at the Cameron County Events Center at Isla Blanca, Sharp said seven new degree programs will be offered at the McAllen Higher Education Center, if the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board approves.

Sharp also spoke about A&M setting up a workforce training center at the Port of Brownsville. Hernandez shared the stage with Sharp as the announcement was made.

“We are going to start with a workforce training center at the port,” Hernandez later told the Rio Grande Guardian. “When I say we it is really collaboration between TEEX, which is Texas A&M’s engineering extension service and TSTC (Texas State Technical College).”

Hernandez said Texas Southmost College and Cameron County would also be involved as the training center gets developed.

“It is truly a collaboration between industry, academia and government. First is building that workforce training center. We have outlined a lot of the courses of study we are going to be teaching there,” Hernandez said.

“After that, hopefully, some of these large corporations that are coming into the port, we are hopefully looking to do some R&D for them and some other things just to help attract them here in the first place. Once they are here, we want to help them be successful.”

Hernandez is a Brownsville native who became a successful businessman after moving to the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. He said one of the key requirements for the Valley to grow economically is to develop a more technically skilled workforce.

“We have to have a skilled workforce. When I came down here four years ago I started to enquire, what is the problem? The No. 1 thing was not companies wanting more incentives, it was not that they did not like this part of the state, it was that we didn’t have a skilled workforce.”

Hernandez said the Valley has a lot of young people that are very bright.

“They can do anything with their phones but they don’t have the proper training to handle this type of (port-related) industry. That is where we come in. It is our responsibility to do that, to coordinate with industry to make sure we teach them the proper skills so they can get a good paying job and stay here, instead of leaving, like I had to do.”

Hernandez predicted great things for the new workforce training center at the Port of Brownsville.

“The workforce training center is just phase one. From there there is really no telling where this can go. A&M is interested in doing it and that is the first challenge.”

Focus on Engineering

In his remarks from the podium, Chancellor Sharp spoke about the engineering academies A&M has been developing around Texas.

“At Texas A&M, one third (of our students) are engineers. It is the largest engineering school in the country. All of them have jobs, too,” Sharp said.

However, Sharp said, many talented students are not in a position to leave home and study at College Station.

“We have a lot of kids that for whatever reason can’t leave home, can’t afford to leave home. So we have started engineering academies. They are funded by Chevron Corporation. We send engineering professors to community colleges, they (the community colleges) teach their normal courses but our engineers teach the engineering component for two years.”

In the third year the budding engineers go to Texas A&M as juniors.

“It saves them a fortune in dormitory fees, they get to stay home for two years. They are fully fledged students of Texas A&M University College Station,” Sharp said, pointing out that A&M has created an engineering academy in the Valley through a tie-up with Texas Southmost College.

“We have almost 20 kids a year go through that and in their junior year they start at A&M. They have a 3.8 average. They are pretty damn start kids,” Sharp said. “We have the engineering academies in San Antonio, Houston, Dallas, Midland. I’m real proud of the cooperation we have with TSC, in making that happen.”

TEEX involvement

During his speech, Sharp paused to give the stage over to Mark Posada, assistant agency director for strategic and education services at TEEX.

Posada said a skilled vocational workforce needs to be developed in the Valley.

“With the Port of Brownsville there is a huge opportunity,” Posada said, pointing out most communities do not have an economic powerhouse like the port.

Posada said the type of courses offered at the new training center could include safety, construction, welding, heavy equipment, and developing soft skills so workers can become leaders and instructors.

“Driving a back hoe is not what it used to be. Everything is technology driven now,” Posada said.

Posada said the next step in developing a workforce training center at the Port of Brownsville will be a leadership meeting with TSTC in mid-March. At the meeting, Posada said, “we are going to determine which training (programs) we will do and who will do it. We are going to get this going.”

After Posada had concluded his remarks, Sharp continued with his message. He said cyber-security is an important course for Texas A&M to offer. “There is a huge shortage (of workers) in cyber-security,” he said.

Sharp said: “You do not have to worry about us forgetting about the Rio Grande Valley. There is not a day goes by when Mike (Hernandez) does not call me. Everyday he is asking, what have you done for the Rio Grande Valley today?”

Sharp also spoke about a “wonderful change” that is taking place in the Valley – regional cooperation. He said the RGV Partnership has helped make that happen.

“All of a sudden, all of the Rio Grande Valley is a team. It is one of the primary reasons why the future is totally unlimited; because of the way everybody is working together. It is all for the kids and by God we are going to do what is right,” Sharp said, to applause from the audience.

“A big part of that is the Rio Grande Valley Partnership. How all of you have gotten together and sent the (regional) message. That is why you have the governor and the lieutenant governor and the speaker and everybody making up excuses to come to the Rio Grande Valley. Because of the opportunities that are here and because of the way people are working so well together.”

Sharp concluded: “You can count on Texas A&M and our seven agencies and the Texas A&M System to put every ounce of what we have, every educational tool, every workforce training tool that we have into the Rio Grande Valley. We will not stop until we have maximized everything we can possibly to do for you and the young people of these counties.”

Sharp won loud applause for his closing remarks.

Port of Brownsville perspective

After Sharp’s remarks, the Rio Grande Guardian interviewed Brownsville Navigation District commissioner Ralph Cowen. The BND manages the Port of Brownsville.

“Training is what it is all about. We are getting the jobs here. Now, we are going to have to fill those jobs with local people. Otherwise the brain drain and the talent drain will continue. The training is what it is all about,” Cowen said.

Asked about the new workforce training center, Cowen said BND has identified an existing building to begin the program.

“It is up to the committee to get it started. It will be industry driven. That way the industry will get the workers they need and we don’t get on a path going in the wrong direction,” Cowen said.

“Now it is time to harvest what we sow. The workers need to be trained. The timing of having them ready is the key. Some of the money used will be private money, some of it will be public money. Federal and state money cannot be used to train for a job that does not exist. You have to have a job that exists. And rightfully so.”

The Rio Grande Guardian also interviewed TSC President Jesus Rodriguez and TSC Board of Trustees Chair Adela G. Garza. They said TSC is looking forward to working with Brownsville Navigation District and Texas A&M to develop the workforce training center.

“We will work collaboratively with any organization that wants to help our region. We have an open door policy and a spirit of collaboration is on the table,” Rodriguez said.

“Our board of trustees has invested over $11 million to create workforce labs and infrastructure.”

Garza said: “We are working really hard with our workforce training. We are here. We are part of this region and we want to be included.”

The Rio Grande Guardian also interviewed Chad Wootton, associate vice president for external affairs at Texas A&M. Asked about the workforce training center, Wootton said:

“Right now we are in a needs assessment, working with the port industry, to determine what would be some of the workforce trainings, perhaps some certifications, feeding into the degree programs we are going to be offering in the region,” Wootton said.

“We will be involving TSTC and Texas Southmost to decide who will be the best provider for those trainings.”

Asked what the next steps will be, Wootton said: “They (TEEX) are working on an executive summary of their initial study, with a mid-March time frame. A full roll out should be out in April.”