MCALLEN, RGV – An absorbing conversation took place at a Texas Workforce Commission Regional Stakeholders Meeting about whether too much emphasis has been placed on getting students to take four-year degree programs, rather than learn technical skills.

As in the past, the catalyst for the discussion was Pat Hobbs, executive director of Workforce Solution Cameron. After listening to the remarks of local industry leaders and educators whose job it is to align courses with the needs of the workplace, Hobbs said he was where things appear to be headed.

“I am sitting here really heartened by the fact the world has finally come full circle. For 30 years I have been fighting the battle against pushing every student to a four-year bachelors’ degree. I think the skills gap realization has led all sectors to understand the nature of the problem right now, about 20 years late,” Hobbs said.

“But, I am heartened by the fact that the economic development folks, the education folks, the college folks, are all beginning to understand that technical education is as important, if not more important now than a four-year college degree in the areas where the jobs exist.”

Hobbs said anywhere from 65 percent to 80 percent of tomorrow’s jobs are in technical areas not requiring a four-year degree. “They may require a certificate or a two-year associate degree, but they do not require a four-year degree.”

Hobbs said his next point was really addressed to parents. “Thirty to 40 percent of our college-going students never finish that four-year degree, even in six years. That means 60 to 70 percent of those students that we pushed to college have now burned up their financial aid. They do not have the resources now to come back home to TSTC or TSC to learn a skill to feed their family. We were not doing them any favors when we pushed them all towards a four-year degree.”

TSTC in Harlingen and Texas Southmost College (TSC) in Brownsville, are the two technical schools that Hobbs works closest with. At the high school level, Hobbs talks to a lot of career and technical education directors. He says many ask him to speak about the importance of CTE to the trustees of school districts. “Sometimes they use me to get a message to board. I think the message has been well received that Technical Ed is a viable endeavor and the trades jobs are well-paying and there are lots of them.”

To prove his point, Hobbs listed some of the big industry projects coming to Cameron County.

“Let me tick them off for you. LNG (liquefied natural gas export terminals), potentially 6,000 construction workers. We just heard about Big River Steel, potentially 1,500, SpaceX, the refinery at the port, the deepening of the port, these are just a few of the opportunities that are coming our way. And then you look through our workforce data and you say, where are we going to get 8,000 construction workers?”

Hobbs said the skills gap in the Lower Rio Grande Valley has “got everybody a little bit scared, particularly if you are in workforce development.” So, Hobbs said, he and other workforce development leaders are trying to get colleges to align with CTE programs. “It is a daunting task. The numbers are scary.”

Hobbs said the Valley probably has about two years before there is a real squeeze on construction workers. “I think if we all work together we can align our resources and set up with our industry partners to have the graduates available to be hired, by the time those industries need them. It will be a damn shame if those companies come in here and have to bring travelers, workers, with them to build a plant and run a plant when we know we have the people here.”

Hobbs added that he appreciates that school districts and colleges and manufacturing associations and economic development corporations are now “working together for the same cause.”

Andres Alcantar, chairman of TWC, said it was not the case that Texas was sending too many students to university. Rather, it was that too many of them were ill-prepared. He cited the fact that only 15 percent of Hispanic students are securing four-year baccalaureate degrees. For African American students the percentage is 22 percent, for Whites aged 25-29 it is 41 percent, and for Asian Americans it is 63 percent.

Alcantar said unemployment is highest among kids who do not finish high school. The next highest level is among students who finish high school but without certification. The next highest level for unemployment is among kids with two-year certifications. He said the highest salaries are for those who graduate with a baccalaureate degree.

“We need to encourage our kids to follow whatever pathway they need to pursue. We need to provide them with objective information about the wonderful two-year degree opportunities that are available to them in each of our sectors, in healthcare, manufacturing, IT. We need to get them excited about construction, which is expected to grow by 27 percent growth,” Alcantar said.

“My point is, there are no victories in shifts if the starting point is not excellence. We are working together as a team and as a team, whatever we excite them (students) with, let’s make sure they are capable of completing it.”

Alcantar the reason Texas has a problem is not that we sent too many kids and they have debt and did not finish. He said not enough students have the mentors and good guidance they need.

“The reason is we sent them to a post-secondary journey without the capability or readiness to complete. They were performing at grade level in 3rd grade, they were performing at grade level when they graduated from our high schools, they went to remedial in a post-secondary institution, and they went to a university not really understanding what kinds of jobs are out there,” Alcantar said.

“We need to focus on the wins and celebrate them but always remain vigilant about creating strategies that promote success at all levels because the job is huge. Our competition keeps getting stronger. All the other states are doing better. Other countries are innovating as fast as we are. We have to keep stepping up our game. That is why these meetings are so important.”

In addition to Hobbs, three other Workforce Solutions leaders spoke at the TWC Regional Stakeholders Meeting.

Rogelio Treviño, executive director of Workforce Solutions South Texas said he agreed with Hobbs’ analysis. “As Pat mentioned, it seems like the whole system (was geared towards going to university). I remember for many years back we had those P-16, it was always, four-year college, four-year college.” Treviño said that was not the case today.

Richard Rogers, executive director of Workforce Solutions Middle Rio, said a few years ago the Texas Workforce Commission was kicked around like a “political football”. Now, however, TWC has the most engaged commission he has ever known. “This commission is pushing the money out the door,” Rogers said.

At the local level, workforce development boards were “bogged down in data,” Rogers said, which resulted in industry leaders not wishing to serve. Referencing the Regional Stakeholders Meeting, Rogers said: “This is what we should be doing in our board meetings, this is what we should be talking about, what is going on in the community.”

Francisco Almaraz, executive director of Workforce Solutions Lower Rio, stressed the importance of partnerships with universities, colleges, school districts and industry. “The economy here in the Rio Grande Valley is really vibrant and it is growing at a really fast pace. Partnerships – that is the only way we can meet the business needs.”

In a Q&A session at the end of the Regional Stakeholders Meeting, Workforce Solutions Cameron’s Hobbs asked Alcantar if, in his “tri-agency” meetings, the TWC chairman was hearing anything about time-based degrees “going down the tubes” because of the urgent need for a more qualified workforce. Hobbs said from what he had read, “smashed times” are going to be needed “to satisfy the demand that is coming.”

Alcantar responded that “innovation is going to keep us moving forward to keep the job done.” He said, “accelerated models” such as those offered by Western Governors University were “very interesting.”

Western Governors University is an online college where you can earn an affordable, accredited, career-focused college degree at an accelerated pace.

Editor’s Note: The above story is the second a series of stories about a Texas Workforce Commission Stakeholders Meeting held at McAllen Chamber of Commerce on April 27, 2018. Click here for the first story.