MCALLEN, RGV – A few years back, the means through which a company secured state funding to pay for a specific workforce training program was bureaucratic and time-consuming.
McAllen Economic Development Corporation President & CEO Keith Patridge remembers companies waiting so long they would get frustrated and give up. Things have changed, now, however, thanks to a streamlined process proposed by South Texas College.
“It used to be, each company would come in and apply individually. It would take so long, companies did not want to spend the time. Now, we can bring in a group of companies together, anticipate what they need and get our application pre-approved. Things are so much faster,” Patridge said.
“I have to give credit to South Texas College President Shirley Reed and her team. Now, through our manufacturing consortium, we can have two students receiving training for one company, five for another, 16 for another. It has opened up training for everyone. It is a model they use across the state.”
The latest example of the Manufacturing Consortium receiving state funding came Friday, when Julian Alvarez, commissioner for the Texas Workforce Commission, presented a skills development check for $221,729 to the consortium and STC. On this occasion the consortium includes Cinch Connectors, Inc., and Universal Metal Products Inc.
Alvarez also presented a $342,740 check from the JET (Jobs and Education for Texans) fund to Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD.
In his remarks at the check presentation event, Patridge pointed to a new study by PricewaterhouseCoopers Advisory Services that showed how the workforce needs of industry are changing.
“Between now and 2030, 38 percent of current jobs are in jeopardy. They are in jeopardy because of the mega trends in automation, robotics, artificial intelligence,” Patridge told the Rio Grande Guardian. “The workforce of tomorrow is going to be more highly skilled. And if we are not providing the skills sets needed, we are going to be in trouble.”
Patridge’s comments echoed those of emcee Carlos Margo, associate dean of industry training and economic development at STC. Margo said millions of jobs in the manufacturing sector are currently going unfilled.
In his remarks, TWC’s Alvarez paid tribute to various entities in the Valley that have collaborated on workforce training initiatives. Alvarez said he often gets asked, in other parts of Texas, how and why Valley institutions are collaborating.
“I was in Bridgeport, Texas, yesterday, and they were asking me, how can you get an EDC, an ISD, and a community college, the leadership of a town, those that are trustees in the community college, how can you get them working together?” Alvarez said. “I told them, South Texas does not work in silos. You guys have had the right approach forever.”
Another question Alvarez said he gets asked is, how come all the TWC checks are going to South Texas these days. He pointed out that all the applicants go through a competitive bidding process. “There are some really good things happening in South Texas. The face of manufacturing and the face of South Texas is changing,” Alvarez said.
Alvarez said the Valley could brag about the development of its wind energy program, liquefied natural gas export terminals at the Port of Brownsville, and SpaceX rockets launching from Boca Chica beach. He said there was also great opportunities for workforce training in coding and cyber-security. And, Alvarez said he wanted to alert McAllen EDC to the possibility of training drone pilots.
Alvarez said one of the best things TWC did was allow school districts to bid for JET funding. Previously it was only available to community colleges. He said thanks should go to state Sen. Juan Hinojosa for suggesting the change.
“Expanding JET into the ISDs is one of the best moves we made. This is huge, it is a game changer,” Alvarez said. He added that increased funding for JET was TWC’s top legislative agenda item. He said the funding stream is now at $10 million, although school districts put in bids for $45 million. PSJA ISD deserved praise, Alvarez said, for securing JET funds in rounds one and two.
PSJA ISD Superintendent Daniel P. King said his leadership team recognizes that the jobs of tomorrow are going to be very different to those of today. “Our students will be moving into an economy that is rapidly changing. We cannot totally predict what that economy will look like, but we do believe robotics and cybersecurity are going to be important,” King said.
With the first round of JET funds, PSJA purchased an ambulance stimulator, other emergency management equipment, and medical mannequins. With the second round of funding, the monies will go towards manufacturing machinery.
“We want state-of-the-art equipment for our students to learn on. But we also want to teach them problem-solving, teamwork, and leadership skills,” King told the Rio Grande Guardian. His standout line in his speech was, “Great things are happening the Valley and we want to be part of the pipeline.”
Because PSJA wants to be part of the solution to the Valley’s workforce training needs, King said, it participates fully in National Manufacturing Day. Over the course of two days students interested in manufacturing go to see local manufacturing plants and hear from industry leaders. “We want to give them a full scope view of what the industry has to offer.”
King concluded his interview by stating he had seen a story about Honolulu-based Pasha Hawaii building new ships at the Port of Brownsville. King said he wanted to connect with the company because PSJA has a thriving welding program.
“We are producing the welders and we can ramp up the program quite a bit. Any industry out there that has a skills shortage, connect to us, we are ready to sit down with anybody. Through our partnership with STC, we want to help with the pipeline. Partnerships are what it is all about, the more we work together the stronger we will be,” King added.
In his remarks, Sen. Hinojosa said the JET fund had “flourished” as a result of it being moved from the Comptroller’s Office to TWC.
“I’m delighted to join TWC Labor Commissioner Alvarez and state Rep. Sergio Muñoz, Jr., to present these job training grants,” Hinojosa said later, in a news release. “To keep pace with the economic growth in the Lower Rio Grande region, it’s essential that we invest in our workforce. The awarding of this JET and Skills grants demonstrates the state’s commitment to our area’s economic success.”
Interviewed after the event, Henry Oh, director the Texas Manufacturing Assistance Center at UT-Rio Grande Valley, said his group stands ready to help companies contracting with STC that need advanced training. The two companies featured today, Cinch Connectors and Universal Metal Products will be contracting through us. We are glad to help.”
In her remarks, STC President Reed recalled comments made to her when she first came to the Valley in 1994. She said she met with the late president of McAllen EDC, Mike Allen, then-vice president Keith Patridge, and McAllen Mayor Othal Brand.
“They kind of sat me down and they said the economic future of this region is going to rest on how successful you are in developing STC. Mike Allen would say the only way we are going to get out of poverty down here is to get jobs down here. And the only way we are going to get jobs is to develop the skills of its workforce,” Reed said. “It was a very simple formula and that is what we have followed since the beginning of the college. That is still our mission today.”
Reed said that while a lot has changed for the better, the Valley’s poverty rate still hovers at around 34 percent. “We’re not changing that until we get more companies and we won’t get more companies until we change the skill level of all the current workforce, plus develop the new group coming up.”
Reed said she is constantly asked by fellow community college presidents across the country, how Valley institutions got the synergy and commitment to work together. She said the cooperation is critical to the future of the region.
“There is just something magical about people wanting to work together here in the Valley. It really is special. I sometimes wonder if it is because we had absolutely nothing when we started that we had no choice but to work together and to work together really well,” Reed said.
Patridge concurred with that remark. “Everyone is working together with the right attitude for the right reasons. This is exciting, I am glad we have it. Nowadays, there is very little we can have thrown at us that we cannot deal with.”