MCALLEN, RGV – South Texas Manufacturers Association will soon be looking for a new executive director.

At the group’s May luncheon at the McAllen Country Club, longtime executive director Mike Willis said he would be stepping down once a replacement is found. Willis is not leaving the organization, however. He plans to become a board member, help develop the group in Cameron County and improve connections with the education sector through STMA’s workforce training committee.

“We want to take STMA to the next level,” Willis told the Rio Grande Guardian and RGV Public Radio 88 FM, in an exclusive interview. “The board and I have been planning for some time, for several years in fact,  how to map out a long-term, sustainable future for STMA, one that secures it financially for the long term.”

Willis has been executive director of STMA for the past the 15 years. During this time the group has grown from a little over 40 different companies to 180 companies today.

“Trying to cover all the bases for STMA, maintain relationships and understand the needs and the challenges of the manufacturing sector… the bigger it gets, the more difficult it is for me to devote the time necessary to do that, considering that I work for both the regional Workforce Solutions board and STMA,” Willis told STMA members at the luncheon.

“So, we are planning to release a job posting sometime around the mid-summer, in July, to initiate a search for a full-time executive director to take my place. Someone who can devote the necessary time to the duties and continue the growth of this organization, while ensuring that we provide increased value to all the members we serve.”

Willis then joked: “Good news or bad news, I am not going anywhere.”

Willis told the Rio Grande Guardian he was going to continue to support STMA and the manufacturing industry.

“I am going to continue working at Workforce Solutions. And, I plan to take a seat on the STMA board of directors once I step out of this role, to help the transition my replacement. I am going to focus on developing our Cameron County chapter that we have been talking a lot about these last five or six months. We have about 15 companies in the Brownsville and Harlingen area that are members and we want to get a chapter going just like this one, to make it easier for folks, so they do not have to drive all the way over here.”

Willis said another area where he thinks he can help STMA is increasing the profile and relevance of the group’s education and workforce committee.

“We want to continue our work with our community college partners, and the school districts and others that focus on developing the talent pipeline that we need to support our industry. That is a top priority and always has been for STMA. I will continue to do the bi-annual wages and benefits survey.”

To maintain confidentiality, Willis said, an executive search firm would be used to screen applicants for STMA’s executive director position. “Some applicants currently working may not want people to know they are applying,” he said.

Willis said there could be increased sponsorship opportunities for service company members. He said STMA’s marketing committee is working on a proposal. “Probably in August, we will start a seven minute-long video presentation at our meetings for service company members.”

Surge in Employment

In his interview with the Rio Grande Guardian, Willis spoke about a big news splash he created just a day before the luncheon. Through his number-crunching work for Workforce Solutions he had calculated that employment in the Valley’s manufacturing sector had increase by 9.3 percent over the past year.

“That is a significant change because we had been fairly flat. Every time a new company came to town someone else was downsizing. Also, there has been a structural change taking place. A lot of companies are doing three times more work than they were ten years ago with the same number of people. They are using technology and automation. So, you cannot always measure the success of a manufacturing company by the number of people working there.”

Nonetheless, the latest survey of the manufacturing sector was very good news, he said.

“And the new figures do not even include the new jobs that are coming online that we know about it, jobs that are committed. Stanley Black & Decker in Mission, Cardone Industries in Harlingen, the new greyhound bus refurbishing operation in Brownsville. Plus all the prospects we hear in the news, the LNG plants, which will need construction workers, and the steel mill, if that actually becomes a reality,” Willis said.

“There are all kinds of prospects we are working on with economic development corporations up and down the Valley. I am excited by the numbers we are seeing. A lot of the growth is from existing companies, not new ones coming into the region. The companies that are here are growing, by and large, they are increasing their capacity.”


Asked about STMA’s workforce and education committee, Willis said: “One of the problems with developing a training program specifically for manufacturing, such as in machining or tool and die, is that the industry is small and the number of job opportunities are fairly limited.”

Willis said STMA would like to see a stronger talent pipeline developed in the maintenance arena, such as industrial maintenance technology.

“That is really the key to the future, to get those young people who are interested in manufacturing the proper training they need so they can be employed. It is critically important. Every time I meet with an EDC about an industrial relocation prospect, the first thing they ask is, where am I going to find my mechanics. Every company needs mechanics. Those are good paying jobs. So, we are working with the new leadership at Texas Southmost College and with Dean Reyna at South Texas College to have an associate’s degree program in mechatronics. It would be available in the high schools through the dual enrollment program.”

Willis concluded the interview by giving a thumbs up to the advanced manufacturing technology program STMA developed with STC about 15 years ago. “That is now in eight school districts in Starr and Hidalgo counties, with over 200 students enrolled. That is a great talent pipeline.”

He added: “These are exciting times for the Valley. I would encourage all companies to help with internships. Give experience to young people.”