MCALLEN, RGV – Every month, Mike Willis, senior business relations representative for Workforce Solutions in McAllen, produces a report on labor trends in the Rio Grande Valley.

This month’s report included a chart that looked at how far the region has come in eliminating the high levels of unemployment that existed in the early and mid-1990s.

Willis titled the section: We’ve Come a Long Way.

“This chart shows the tremendous progress that has been made in the Rio Grande Valley as a result of a concerted effort over many years by our city, county, state, and federal representatives, economic development organizations, educational institutions, regional workforce development boards (Workforce Solutions), and the support of countless businesses, individuals and organizations that have worked to improve the standard of living for our residents,” Willis wrote in his monthly report.

“Our high population growth rate and the strong growth in cross-border trade have been major contributors to the job creation that has taken place and made this possible.”

The Rio Grande Guardian and RGV Public Radio 88 FM connected with Willis at a South Texas Manufacturers Association meeting to ask him about his research.

“Those of us who have grown up in the Valley, like myself, we remember that period when unemployment was so high. Perhaps we were not looking at numbers back then. We were living it,” Willis said.

Willis said his research took him back to 1990. He said he could not find accurate or appropriate data before that point.

“Back in the early 1990s, we were running in the double digits, 20-plus percent unemployment in most of the counties. One of the counties, I believe, even had 40 percent unemployment. It was double-digit all the way through the late 1990s. When you step back and look at a graph like that it shows the steady improvement we have made over time,” Willis observed.

“To me, the key to our improved fortunes has been the increased educational rates. In the year 2000, 50 percent of the adult population in the Rio Grande Valley did not have a high school diploma or GED. The 2000 Census showed 49.6 percent of all adults over the age of 25 did not have a high school diploma. By 2010 things had improved with almost 60 percent of the population having a high school diploma. Currently, it is approaching 65 percent.”

Willis said he has analyzed the numbers by age bracket.

“Our young people in their 20s and 30s are graduating high school almost at the same rate as the rest of the state and country. Part of this goes back to our agricultural past, when a lot of folks working in the fields and farms. There were not as many high tech jobs. It has been a lot of work by a lot of people with a lot of vision over the years. Of course, our residents themselves have a lot to do with it,” Willis said.

“It is a virtuous cycle, when parents get educated they set expectations for their kids to get educated. Every time we add to the number of people with a high school diploma or a college degree, that creates more people who set those expectations for themselves and their children. We are making a lot of progress. I think the days are gone already when we were known as a place with no educated people.”

Willis said the unemployment rate is the product of a well-qualified workforce and an environment that is conducive to creating jobs.

“Texas has done a better job than any state in the country at creating a pro-business climate that helps with job creation. We have a lot of folks in the economic development communities, city leaders, politicians, and everybody, who have done a lot of hard work over the years to try to do everything they can to try to improve conditions for business to flourish.”

“Of course, we have had a growing population. We have also had tremendous growth in cross-border trade, thanks to NAFTA. This has created a lot of jobs, not just in manufacturing, but all the other sectors as well.”

Willis’ analysis dovetails comments Starr County leaders have made to the Rio Grande Guardian over the years: that their unemployment rate dropped once South Texas College opened its campus in Rio Grande City. Asked about this, Willis said:

“The dual credit and dual enrollment opportunities that have been available over the last ten, 15 years, has been a Godsend for the people of the Valley because students can get an associate degree or certificate free by the time they graduate high school. 

“For poor families and those on limited income, that is a tremendous asset. It has put rocket fuel in our education attainment. Sixty five percent of new job creation is going to require an associate degree or certificate. This does not mean we do not need four-year college degrees but it does mean we need a much higher percentage of people attaining associate degrees or certificates and the specific skills that are needed in the workforce in all sectors.”

Asked if any of the Valley’s leaders that were in place in the early 1990s could have foreseen the increase in the Valley’s quality of life, Willis said:

“I think a lot of people believed we could get there. It was a question of how long it would take. It has taken a long time. Nobody has the power to wave a magic wand. We are still a free nation and people have the individual choice.”

Willis said too many people have wanted to “point the finger” at the Valley’s public schools for the region’s lower than average educational attainment rates.

“If you think about our public school districts, everybody likes to point the finger at them. I have always wondered why a school district can take some students, put them through the same system and they get scholarships to Yale and Brown and TCU and A&M and all of that and then others do not make it through high school. But, there are all kinds of challenges. It is not just the work the schools do. It is the home life, the expectations that are set for kids. It is our socio-economic situation. There are a host of barriers folks have to overcome. All of the pieces have to work together.” 

Willis said he views the improvement in the labor market as “an organic thing” that happens with time. 

“Education rates normally improve with the second and third generation of immigrants. That is part of it. No one gets all the credit and no deserves all the blame. There is still a long way to go. We have the table set and we are moving in the right direction. It feeds upon itself. It is a virtuous cycle.”

Asked if the Valley’s renowned work ethic has played a part, Willis said:

“The work ethic is great here. I have heard a lot of businesses comment on that and the willingness of employees to learn. Our economic growth has always hinged on our fast growing population. They have to be educated and provided good opportunities. It all has to work together. There is nothing wrong with our work ethic. 

“There is also a lot of entrepreneurial spirit in the Valley. A lot of the folks here are willing to take risks and start businesses. A lot of that may come from wanting to make ends meet. A lot of it has to do with people being innovative by nature. They want to start their own business and they want to own something.”