LAREDO, Texas – State Sen. Juan Hinojosa sponsored a resolution this legislative session that requests the creation of a joint interim committee to study education policy as it relates to developing a skilled workforce.

The legislation – HCR 82 – was authored by state Reps. Todd Hunter and Walter ‘Four’ Price. It was passed by the House and Senate and is on the Governor’s desk awaiting signature.

In an interview with the Guardian, Hinojosa said the interim committee will want to take a look at innovative curriculum programs like the oil and gas one being developed by United ISD in Laredo. The curriculum was developed by United ISD teachers in conjunction with oil and gas industry officials and the Texas Education Agency.

“I am 100 percent in support of the oil and gas program being developed by United ISD. We know that the Eagle Ford Shale oil and gas production will be there for the next 20 years or more so it is exciting to see local schools educating their students to enter this industry,” said Hinojosa, D-McAllen.

Hinojosa said one of the biggest complaints he hears from the business community is that Texas does not have enough skilled labor to meet demand. He said this is particularly so in South Texas with the Eagle Ford Shale play. “Eagle Ford Shale has been a tremendous boon for us in South Texas, and for the state. It is creating thousands of jobs. Yet, we do not have the workers with the skills to fill those jobs. As a result, Eagle Ford Shale is drawing skilled workers away from other industries because the wage scales are so much higher.”

Hinojosa said one of the focuses this legislative session was to change the high school curriculum and provide more options and opportunities to students who do not want to go to college but are very smart. “We have to create a curriculum that allows these students to learn certain skills so that, when they graduate from high school, they can walk into a job that is waiting for them. We do not want them to become dropouts. We need to create more options at the high school level without hurting the chances of those that want to go to college.”

United ISD’s oil and gas program was officially unveiled at a ceremony in Laredo on May 24, 2013. (Photo: RGG/Steve Taylor)
United ISD’s oil and gas program was officially unveiled at a ceremony in Laredo on May 24, 2013. (Photo: RGG/Steve Taylor)

United ISD’s oil and gas program was officially unveiled at a ceremony in Laredo on May 24. It drew industry executives, academics and workforce training specialists. Among the adjectives used to describe the program was “monumental” and “phenomenal.” These words were coming from industry executives.

Under the program, students in all four of United ISD’s high schools can enroll. The program includes internships with oil and gas companies working in the Eagle Ford Shale play. Students can go down one of two tracks. They can either learn about the oil and gas industry with a view to continuing their education at Laredo Community College or obtain sufficient skills to secure an entry level position in the oil and gas industry upon leaving high school. Those who chose to leave high school to enter the job market can come back and build upon their education at a later date.

Dr. Alicia Carrillo, director of career and technical education at United ISD, said the Texas Education Agency has not only blessed the oil and gas program but it is promoting it as a model that other school districts could replicate. Carrillo said it is a first of its kind and as such is attracting interest from other school districts in Texas and other parts of the country. No other school district in Texas has a program focused on the oil and gas industry, she said.

“This program is based upon the needs of the industry. We developed the curriculum with those in the industry and our teachers are going to go and work in the industry for a week in the summer so they have a better grasp of the industry. It will help them as they refine the coursework,” Carrillo said. Thus far, she said, 50 students at United’s four high schools have enrolled in the oil and gas program.

The idea of an oil and gas program was first brought to United ISD by workforce training consultants Blas Castañeda and Jorge Treviño. At the ceremony, Castañeda read aloud a news release from U.S. Senator John Cornyn. The release stated:

“I congratulate Superintendent Roberto Santos, the members of the board of the United Independent School District, and the Career and Technical Education staff at UISD along with my good friend Blas Castañeda for their leadership in expanding career and learning opportunities for Laredo students.

“This innovative program will equip students with essential knowledge and skills about the oil and gas industry. The internship/co-op training and community college dual credit options for seniors also ensures that UISD graduates are prepared to continue their education or seek employment. The coordination between school leaders and the business community is also an example of the benefits of local control in education.”

In an interview after the ceremony, Castañeda said he was delighted to see oil and gas firms contributing financially to the program and agreeing to partner with United ISD and LCC on an internship program. “The internship program is vital because you cannot replace skills you learn in the private sector with incubator-type things at the colleges and schools. The Fernando Salinas Charitable Trust is donating $150,000 to this oil and gas program but Javier B. Santos, a trustee of the trust, told me they will put in a lot more when they see it is successful and when they see private industry contributing more. That is what has got to happen,” Castañeda.

In addition to praising the Fernando Salinas Charitable Trust, Castañeda also thanked Lewis Energy for agreeing to form an internship program with United ISD. He noted that Lewis Energy has already committed $1 million for campus construction at LCC. LCC, meanwhile, has kicked in $25,000 to kick start UISD’s oil and gas program.

In his remarks to the audience at the ceremony, Castañeda said the State of Texas really should have started oil and gas programs in high schools long before United ISD got its program going. “People do not realize that the United States has become a global leader in energy production. If we are to become self-sufficient in energy production we must educate our youth with the skills that are really global in nature,” Castañeda told the Guardian later.

Among those in the audience at United ISD’s ceremony was Wanda Garza, interim vice president for student affairs and enrollment management at South Texas College in McAllen. Garza was asked if McAllen and its neighboring cities were too far away from Eagle Ford Shale to benefit in a meaningful way. She answered “no” and said many students leaving Rio Grande Valley high schools and community colleges were getting the opportunity to work for companies involved in Eagle Ford Shale.

“You would be surprised. The oil and gas companies are here in the Valley recruiting. They are on our doorstep. And we at STC are playing our part in the consortium of community colleges thanks to the invitation of Laredo Community College,” Garza said.

Garza said she was pleased to be at the official unveiling of United ISD’s oil and gas program because she learned a lot. She said she has taken literature from the event back to the STC dean. “United ISD deserves praise. This is all about giving students a credential because we are projecting Eagle Ford Shale will be around for another 25 or 30 years. If we do not provide the programs that allow them to earn a credential to work in the oil and gas industry we are doing them a great disservice. This is all about climbing the ladder. I really applaud United ISD.”