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Ana Maria Garcia, Rio Grande Valley district director for U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, Julian Alvarez, labor representative on the Texas Workforce Commission, Pat Hobbs, executive director of Workforce Solutions Cameron, and Matt Ruszczak, executive director of Rio South Texas Economic Council.

BROWNSVILLE, RGV – At a recent apprenticeship summit hosted by the Texas Workforce Commission, Pat Hobbs, who runs Workforce Solutions Cameron, confided with the Rio Grande Guardian about his “scary problem.”

If any of the big manufacturing projects he is working with – such as SATA Group’s foundry project in Brownsville, SpaceX’s rocket launch facility at Boca Chica, or one of three LNG (Liquefied Natural Gas) companies that hope to build an export terminal at the Port of Brownsville – come about, Hobbs is going to have a hard time finding enough skilled workers.

“I have a sheet from one of the LNG companies looking to build an export terminal at the Port of Brownsville. It shows that if they build just two trains, they would need 2,000 workers, 400 carpenters, 500 welders, 500 electricians. Those kinds of numbers are not here in the Valley,” Hobbs said.

“They would either have to bring them with them or we would have to generate them on a fast track so that we can take those jobs, rather than give them to some outside workers. So, yes, it is a scary problem if you are sitting in my shoes.”

An LNG train is a liquefied natural gas plant’s liquefaction and purification facility. In order to make it practical and commercially viable to transport natural gas its volume has to be greatly reduced. This is done in an LNG train.

With the possibility of major manufacturing projects on their way to the Valley, Hobbs was excited to host TWC’s Apprenticeship Summit on June 14 at Texas Southmost College’s ITEEC Campus. It allowed Valley leaders in the education, academic, workforce training and industrial sectors to come together to discuss scaling up apprenticeship programs in the region.

“Let’s sit down together and work a plan where we have pre-apprenticeships in the high schools that are aligned with the college programs, at least to certificate level, and be able to push the workers out into the workforce within a year, rather than either a four-year degree, which, you heard today, is not of much value, or a two-year degree, which is good,” Hobbs told the Rio Grande Guardian.

One of the speakers at the summit was Julian Alvarez, labor’s representative on the Texas Workforce Commission. In an interview with reporters at the summit, Alvarez said: “Rumor has it they are almost through the FERC process.” He was referring to one of the LNG companies looking to build an export terminal at the Port of Brownsville. FERC is the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Once FERC approval has been granted, an LNG company could announce it is building an export terminal at the Port of Brownsville.

Asked if the Valley could respond if this happened, Workforce Solutions Cameron’s Hobbs said: “Even if it starts a year from now, it is still scary because it takes a year to put out even a certificate level graduate. Yes, it is a concern. That is why we are having this summit, to get all the stakeholders together and start thinking about how we are going to fix it.”

Hobbs ran through some of the major manufacturing projects that could happen in the lower Valley. He said the size of the projects makes the introduction of a scaled-up apprenticeship program all the more important.

“We have a lot of industry and potential workforce activity over the next couple of years, SpaceX, SATA, LNG, shipbuilding, ship breaking, a bus refurbishing company. All of those jobs for our population and we are having difficulty finding the skilled workers to fill those positions. That is what we are trying to fix, partially with this summit on apprenticeship,” Hobbs said.

“We think apprenticeships is one of the avenues we can pursue to help build our workforce more rapidly than we could otherwise. It is a combination of working with education and industry and workforce to create a system that generates the workforce we are going to need to sustain those industries that are coming.

Hobbs added that it is important for the Valley media to “spread the word” about developing an apprenticeship program because it is important for the whole region.

Industry Driven

Another of the speakers at TWC’s apprenticeship summit was Matt Ruszczak, executive director of Rio South Texas Economic Council. Ruszczak recently attended the Hannover Trade Fair. During the trip, he visited various manufacturing plants in Germany and learned about the country’s highly developed much admired apprenticeship program.

In an interview afterwards with the Rio Grande Guardian, Ruszczak said the Valley could learn not only from the German apprenticeship model, but also those in place in England, Mexico, North Carolina, Indiana and Illinois.

“It is great that we are having this conversation and that we are trying to find our own path. We will not make a carbon copy of what somebody else is using but we will learn the best practices from other folks’ successes and build a model that will work for us. So, we are excited about elevating that conversation,” Ruszczak said.

Asked what the key points were that he wanted to get across at the summit, Ruszczak said: “The core of my message was showcasing the apprenticeship models near and far, looking all the way across to Germany and England, to Mexico, to South Carolina, Indiana, Illinois, extracting lessons that can be learned from the successes these models have achieved. And, looking at what we can do to adapt these in our region. To help advance the buy-in into the apprenticeship model as a tool in our toolbox for our workforce development pipeline.”

Ruszczak added: “The key to the success of this movement will be collaboration that includes industry and that the effort is driven by industry. The opportunity to engage with industry leaders in this conversation is really promising and I am excited about what the future holds.”

Rio South Texas Economic Council executive director Matt Z. Ruszczak has just returned from a trip to Europe where he took in the Hannover Trade Fair. Join in as Publisher Mark Hanna discusses with Ruszczak LIVE.

Posted by Rio Grande Guardian on Friday, May 5, 2017


In a later email to Hobbs that was shared with those who attended the summit, Ruszczak said the Trump Administration is engaged in debate about an apprenticeship initiative.

He cited a story on the Fox Business channel which alluded to the U.S. apprenticeship model moving closer towards its European counterparts, with the addition of federal support for white collar apprenticeships.

Click here to read the story.

The story noted that around 450 types of industry jobs are apprenticed in Germany, many in white collar sector. In the U.K. it is over 1500, the story said.

“Depending how this materializes, it may result in interesting opportunities for our education providers and may expand earn-while-you-learn opportunities for students who already work while in college, maybe even at the high school level via dual credit,” Ruszczak said, in his email to Hobbs.

In his remarks at his agency’s summit, TWC’s Alvarez said the apprenticeship model is changing.

“We used to think of it for plumbing or sheet metal or electrical, great fields to be in. But, CVS now has an apprenticeship for those with disabilities. You can be a pharmacy technician program, earn $17.50 an hour, and work from home answering calls,” Alvarez said.

He also cited JP Morgan Chase’s interest in setting up an apprenticeship program with TWC to develop cyber security analysts. Closer to home, Alvarez praised Doctors Hospital at Renaissance.

Doctors Hospital at Renaissance

Alvarez said that within a couple of days of becoming a TWC commissioner he got a call from Dr. Ambrosio Hernandez of Doctors Hospital at Renaissance. He said the very next day, Hernandez and DHR’s Eliza Alvarado flew to Austin for a meeting with him. Alvarez said it resulted in DHR securing the second largest Skills Development Fund grant TWC has awarded.

“They had ideas for multiple training plans. Now, they provide training for existing employees or new employees. They use our Skills Development Fund, which is usually awarded to a college and the training usually takes place at the college. In this particular case, the training is taking place at the hospital. South Texas College is embedded there, providing the training. STC also serves as the fiscal agent. It is a different model. What DHR did set the tone for other hospitals. There are 11 hospitals that are going to consolidate and do the same training model that DHR adopted,” Alvarez told the Rio Grande Guardian.

Alvarez said TWC wants to implement a new type of apprenticeship model.

“We are trying to bring this apprenticeship model to South Texas, which is new to us. No longer are we just looking at plumbing, electrical, masonry, construction. We are also looking at IT, like cyber security, coding,” Alvarez said.

“We have the data that says what type of workforce need is. We want industry people that know what training is needed embedded in the school districts, to assist the counselors. Not everyone is going to go the four-year institution route. The in-demand jobs require a certificate. So, apprenticeships can help.”

Alvarez said the Department of Labor is helping develop the new model.

“The training model could be termed ‘Earn while you Learn.’  Our idea is to not only help the employer get customized trained workforce they need, but it also allows them to promote an apprenticeship program,” Alvarez said.

“For example, at Toyota, in San Antonio, there are a lot of folks that know how to operate machinery, but how many of them know how to program the machinery? When you have an assembly-type operation, you depend on those trucks coming out every sixty seconds. We are working on a training model with Toyota right now.”

In addition to giving a shout out to Doctors Hospital at Renaissance, Alvarez also praised Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD for winning back-to-back JET Fund grants from TWC to purchase equipment for students. He also praised Harlingen CISD for its plans to build an apprenticeship academy in a former school building.

Whether you are talking about pre-apprenticeship, which starts in high schools, courses like OSHA training, which deals with safety, our job is to try to get those folks that are interested in those trades to attend either an apprenticeship school, or, someone like Harlingen, vacant school and turn it into an apprenticeship school or academy. Where Matt went, it is a great model. We know a lot of kids are not going to college because of the expense. The apprenticeship model is earn while you learn. Who provides this, the employer and Texas Workforce.