EDINBURG, RGV – Pat Hobbs, executive director of Workforce Solutions Cameron, says public education policy for the last 30 years failed students.

Hobbs gave a presentation at South Texas College’s 13th annual Summit on College and Career Readiness. One of his key points was that a skills gap across the whole country exists due to poor career awareness counseling for the past 30 years.

“We’ve failed our students. We pushed students that didn’t have the resources to complete college and they didn’t graduate. That’s 60 percent of the thousands and thousands that we sent and ended up not graduating,” Hobbs said.

“Now, they’ve burned up their financial aid and have no means to go back and earn a skill set from a community college or TSTC. Now, they’re in the workforce and incapable of doing anything except manual labor.”

One way to turn this dynamic around is by doing a better job of career awareness and installing CTE (career technical education) programs for skill sets that are in high demand, Hobbs told the Rio Grande Guardian, in an exclusive interview after his presentation. This will allow the region to build a quality workforce to attract industries, he argued.

“Both the federal, state and particularly our local levels are pushing the fact that that old paradigm needs to change,” Hobbs said. “Technical education is where all the jobs are in the future. They pay twice what a liberal arts job is going to pay and there are no more liberal arts jobs. It’s completely flipped. The global economy is all about skill set.”

Workforce Solutions Cameron have several projects going on that will open up about 4,000 jobs in construction in the next two years. Hobbs says that in their working Texas database, there is nobody that is unemployed with skill sets such as electricians, plumbers and welders.

“If this new construction comes from outside sources, we’re going to be in worse shape, because we’re already in bad shape in the construction industry,” Hobbs said. “We need to start building the programs and start training now so when those companies get here we have a local workforce that can satisfy those needs.”

Among the projects Hobbs was referring to are SpaceX and LNG export terminals.

If industries relocate to the Rio Grande Valley and find that there is not a sufficient workforce they will have to hire travelers, or people with the desired skill set from outside the region. Hobbs says industries will hire travelers if they have to, but prefer to hire local talent to avoid paying for the living expenses of travelers.

“Some of these jobs are tremendous. I’m hearing the minimum salary for even the lowest level worker at the LNG construction site is going to be $15 per hour,” Hobbs said. “The minimum salary for the Greyhound Bus Refurbishing is likely going to be $17.50 per hour. That’s twice than what our laborers make. Things are changing and we need to be prepared for it.”

Hobbs believes the region should shift its focus to investing in a workforce of mid-level skill sets such as technical training, CTE programs and certifications from community colleges.

However, Luzelma Canales, executive director of RGV Focus, believes the Rio Grande Valley should invest in building an integrated mission and system that will work for both. Canales also spoke at the STC summit.

Luzelma Canales

“We have been heavily focused on academic transfer programs and getting more students to finish two to four year degrees. We’ve moved away from technical training and getting more credentials,” Canales acknowledged. “However the Valley is still behind the state and the nation in four year degrees because we started behind. … We are behind in both [degrees and technical skills]. One of the things that we can do in the Rio Grande Valley is not abandon one mission for another.”

Two years ago, Canales and four other colleagues travelled to Singapore to learn about their integrated model for education, workforce development and economic development. She says they learned about the teacher pipeline and how selective they are about who becomes a teacher and/or a principal. Canales also saw how the country got behind technical education and the role of technical education.

“Every campus that we visited people were happy to be where they were. Employers valued the lower-skill trade as much as the middle-skilled trades as much as the professional. When you’re able to build that kind of buy-in it is invaluable,” Canales said.

“That’s why I don’t want us to think that in the Valley, it’s one or the other because we still lag in the country and in the state in baccalaureate degrees. I don’t want us to go from one urgent mission to another. I just think we need to be more intelligent about serving both.”