EDINBURG, RGV – Congressman Rubén Hinojosa is planning to take a delegation of educators and business leaders to Houston to see if they can replicate a highly successful training program implemented by the petroleum industry and community colleges.

Hinojosa said there is a “big pot of money” for workforce training available from the Department of Labor that can be married to an initiative similar to that created by ExxonMobil and Lee Community Center in Baytown.

However, Hinojosa envisages the public-private collaboration in the Rio Grande Valley to be extended beyond petrochemicals, although he acknowledges this is an important component. He also wants the medical, information technology and manufacturing sectors involved.

The discussions are in the early stages but Hinojosa has already approached South Texas College President Shirley Reed to ask if STC can be the lead higher education institution in a Valley consortium. TSTC-Harlingen and Texas Southmost College would also be key players in the project, Hinojosa said.

Hinojosa’s exclusive interview with the Guardian came after he spoke at a congressional roundtable at HESTEC 2014, a conference the Mercedes Democrat started 13 years ago to focus Valley students on careers in science, technology, engineering, and math. Hinojosa said his idea, while still in the early stages, has great potential and is definitely achievable.

U.S. Rep. Rubén Hinojosa spoke about his ideas for boosting workforce training in the Rio Grande Valley after delivering remarks at HESTEC 2014.
U.S. Rep. Rubén Hinojosa spoke about his ideas for boosting workforce training in the Rio Grande Valley after delivering remarks at HESTEC 2014.

“This is how it started. Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus were invited to lunch by the American Petroleum Institute, in D.C. The group includes ExxonMobil, Shell Oil, Marathon and other big companies in the oil industry,” Hinojosa said.

“These companies do not just need students graduating with a STEM major, such as engineers, mathematicians, physicists. They want a workforce that will help them through vocational, technical careers, graduating in courses that are available through our community colleges.”

Hinojosa said companies within the American Petroleum Institute offered to partner with each member of Congress in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus who wanted to create a coalition with community colleges.

“The result is I took up an offer made by the CEO of ExxonMobil, Rex Tillerson. Several of us from South Texas went to his office in Irving, Texas, in Las Colinas, and we said we want to hear more about how we can work together with our community colleges to form a regional coalition.”

Hinojosa said that Tillerson recommended he take a look at a regional coalition ExxonMobil had formed with Lee Community College in Baytown.

“There, a number of community colleges and about 100 employers, including, particularly, oil and gas companies, will prepare people who will go to work in the oil refineries, in oil production, etc. All of this to say, we are going to do the same thing in the Rio Grande Valley,” Hinojosa said.

Exxon Mobil has partnered with Lee Community College to create the Community College Petrochemical Initiative. ExxonMobil has so far invested $1 million in the project. According to the CCPI website, Lee College is the lead institution in the consortium, “which brings together nine Texas Gulf Coast community colleges in an effort to recruit and train the next generation of workers for petrochemical careers.”

The difference with a Valley initiative, Hinojosa said, is that it will include not only community colleges and petroleum companies but also corporations from other industries. “This includes probably five hospitals in the Valley, including Doctors Hospital at Renaissance, and at least five manufacturing companies,” Hinojosa said. “We want to create opportunities for two year degrees that can lead to a Bachelor’s degree. All of this to say that within the next 60 days we will visit that model they have in Houston and look to recreate it right here in the Rio Grande Valley utilizing our community colleges.”

Hinojosa said oil and gas has to play a big part in the consortium because of what is happening in shale extraction in Texas and, soon, Mexico.

“I think it is really exciting because we are in the middle of the Eagle Ford Shale and the Burgos Basin. I say that we learned today (at HESTEC) that there is, over the next ten years, a tremendous need for that particular sector that pays extremely well and that we encourage all the employers and all the colleges to work with our members of Congress. As a group we are much more powerful in Washington to get federal funds to match the private monies,” Hinojosa said.

Asked if Valley students could end up working in the Burgos Basin in Mexico and Mexican students could study for petroleum industry jobs at Valley community colleges, Hinojosa said: “I am interested in creating good paying jobs for Americans. Mexico is a good trading partner but that is something different.”

In an interview with the Guardian late last month on the same subject, Hinojosa said: “We have been talking to 15 petrochemical companies. We will be competing for a big pot of money, for $150 million, which will be given out in grants of $10 million to $30 million. It will be a regional program, with community colleges coming together to work with companies in healthcare, information technology, manufacturing.”

Hinojosa said “all the signs” are that major corporations want to come to the Valley and to take advantage of incentives offered by the Obama Administration to relocate their overseas operations in the United States.

“We have this new law, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act that has a lot of money in it for the sectors that have good paying jobs. It is a big, big project. They are doing it in Houston with about five big colleges and about 100 partners in the private sector. We want to replicate that and bring it here. It is not easy to do but it is one I say can be done with the help of mayors, county judges, state representatives, state senators and other elected officials.”

STC President Reed gave a brief interview to the Guardian about Hinojosa’s ideas. “From what I understand, a big Department of Labor grant has approved for workforce development. The funds will used to create apprenticeship training opportunities. It could be in petrochemical, it could be in home health care, it could be in manufacturing. Congressman Hinojosa is excited about it and we are keen to learn more.”