MCALLEN, RGV – The head of industry training at South Texas College has given credit to Matt Ruszczak and Rio South Texas Economic Council for first suggesting a youth apprenticeship program for the Rio Grande Valley.

Carlos Margo, associate dean of industry training and economic development at STC, said the idea for the first-of-a-kind Valley program came about after Ruszczak, executive director of RSTEC, researched a similar apprenticeship model being developed at Trident Technical College in Charleston, South Carolina.

The Valley program is a collaboration between STC, McAllen ISD, the McAllen Chamber of Commerce and nine local businesses. It allows McAllen high school junior and senior students to work part-time for a local business while receiving training at STC. Funding for the program comes from McAllen ISD.

Matt Ruszczak

“We are modeling our program on the Trident College program, which Matt Ruszczak brought to us,” Margo said, in an interview with the Rio Grande Guardian and RGV Public Radio 88 FM.

“I give a lot of credit to Matt and RSTEC. Matt is an avid supporter of apprenticeship programs in general. He did some initial research and brought that research back to RSTEC. STC is on the board of RSTEC. I also met someone from Trident while on my trip to Germany for the Hannover Fair. So it was a combination of that conversation and Matt’s research that give us the impetus to start our program.”

As first reported in the Rio Grande Guardian, Margo went to Charleston to learn more about the Trident Technical College apprenticeship program.

“I went out to Charleston about a year and a half ago. They had what you see here today. But they started their youth apprenticeship program about five years ago. I came back and told Steve, there is no reason we cannot do what they are doing.”

The Steve that Margo was referring to is Steve Ahlenius, president of McAllen Chamber of Commerce. 

Carlos Margo

“In subsequent discussions with Trident, I just knew it needed to be replicated here. Their program grew from maybe ten students that first year to 400 to 500, three years later. And they are expanding that program. Employers are jumping on it, including big manufacturing companies like Bosch,” Margo said. 

The McAllen-area companies that have agreed to take on youth apprentices from McAllen high schools include Santa Fe Steakhouse, The Monitor, House Wine and Bistro, SALT New American Table, Double Tree Hotel, Clark Chevrolet, Boggus Ford, and Atlas Electrical, Air Conditioning, Refrigeration, and Plumbing Services Inc.

Apprentice occupations include Auto Technician, Heating, Ventilation, Air Conditioning (HVAC), Hotel Operations, and Culinary Arts.

Margo said the timing of a youth apprenticeship program for the Rio Grande Valley could not be better because the White House and the U.S. Department of Labor is pushing for them. In fact, at Margo’s behest, STC has become an officially registered U.S. Department of Labor apprenticeship sponsor.

“The U.S. Department of Labor is keen to expand apprenticeship programs. So, in addition to STC being the training provider for the students, we are also the officially registered U.S. Department of Labor apprenticeship sponsor,” Margo explained.

“Any employer that wishes to hire apprentices has to register through South Texas College, which in turn submits that application to the Department of Labor and that is when the students become registered apprentices. The employer has to pay the student at the going rate for a part-time employee. And the hours are flexible, there is no minimum, just as long as it is documented.”

Margo acknowledged the youth apprenticeship program is “something brand new,” not only but the region at large. “Once STC became a Department of Labor sponsor, it opened the door to students and employers to partner with the college. We provide the related instruction, the classroom part of this apprenticeship program. These part-time classes related to what they are learning on the job.” 

Asked if he could see the program expanding in future years, Margo said:

“I do see this expanding, not just in McAllen. PSJA school district has asked to have discussions about such a program, so has La Joya ISD. And it does not have to be large manufacturing companies. It can be any industry. If we can continue with this momentum from our partners, there is nothing to stop this program continuing. As long as there is a need from business and I can almost guarantee there will be a need for a trained workforce.”

“McAllen ISD has signed an MOU with STC to pay for the customized training program. Sanctioned by Department of Labor. White House is pushing and so there is more support coming. We have a proposal to get federal grant. It is a competitive process. 

While McAllen ISD is paying for the training component of the pilot youth apprenticeship program, STC is seeking federal grants to ensure it is sustainable.

“Eventually, we are probably going to have to have a separate department just for apprenticeship programs,” Margo predicted. “My philosophy has always been, never say no industry and other educational institutions seek partnerships with us. There is no question will have to grow with this program. Funding is going to be key, too. We are going to have to secure funding, either through grants or employer support.”

Looking ahead, Margo sees other partners stepping up and joining the program.  

“I am realistic but at the same time optimistic that once we show that this first year is a success, the employers will start to pick up the tab. It will probably be a combination of STC, school district and employers all pitching in to make sure it can happen.”

Ahlenius, the president of McAllen Chamber of Commerce, said: “This program is really where the future is headed in developing talent in our community. I’m really excited about the commitment our business community has made.”

McAllen ISD Superintendent Dr. J.A. Gonzalez said: “At one point in our lives, we were sitting where these students are sitting now with the same dreams and curiosities. That’s why we are joined together to give students these opportunities. 

“McAllen ISD students are resilient. They compete at a very high level and they perform under pressure. They were brave enough to take this challenge and I know they will be successful.”