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  ·   By Kimberly Reeves, Austin Business Journal   ·  Link to Article

Business leaders need to know: How are we training workers for

The shift in how Austin-based hospital operator Ascension Seton thought about workforce development came with the opening of the Dell Seton Medical Center last year.

Chief Advocacy Officer Geronimo Rodriguez was out in the community, talking about the state-of-the-art $300 million teaching hospital. As Rodriguez remembered the conversation, members said the shiny new hospital — and all its charity care — was great. But they had some questions for Rodriguez: “Where are the jobs that I can have in order to afford to live here, and what kind of jobs can my kids have, that they can afford to live in a house like yours? How can they go to school like your kids and drive a car like you do?”

That struck a nerve, Rodriguez admitted. His job was to advocate for the health care system’s mission, to protect the poor and vulnerable. And the people who needed the most help were financially drowning in a city that constantly touted its success.

“So we started looking internally, and we decided to essentially blow up our diversity department and really focus it on workforce development, with a singular vision of connecting the local community to both high-turnover, entry-level jobs and high-demand health care careers,” Rodriguez said. “We wanted to look below nursing, to develop a workforce development pilot around surgical technicians, surgical technologists.”

Ascension Seton is one of the Austin area’s largest private employers, so its efforts to train workers has major ramifications across the region. The same situation is playing out in San Antonio to the south at places like Alamo Colleges District and tech bootcamp Codeup, as well as points in between. San Marcos, mostly known for its natural beauty, quaint downtown and Texas State University, now is also home to an Amazon.com Inc. fulfillment with thousands of workers and dozens of automated robots ferrying packages across a warehouse larger than the Texas Longhorns football stadium.

So the big dilemma is figuring out how to prepare workers for the jobs of the future, many of which don’t even exist today. How private- and public-sector leaders interact to tackle those issues will be a deciding factor in whether the riches of the thriving Texas economy are equally distributed to the masses.

Another piece of the puzzle for Ascension fell into place thanks to outside intervention. Garrett Groves, Austin Community College’s new vice president of business and industry partnerships, called on Rodriguez to talk about a new master community workforce plan in partnership with ACC, Workforce Solutions and the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce.

“We’re in year two of our surgical technicians pilot, and we’re working with ACC and Garrett to see if we can find ways that our hospital can help break down barriers for our employees,” Rodriguez said. “We’re going to break down barriers so that individuals who are, maybe, a year or a semester away from a new job, can accelerate in order to meet our high demand.”

The master community workforce plan, unveiled in June 2017, focuses on three careers — health care, information technology and skilled trades — and four goals: awareness, training, placement and advancement. The goal is to place 10,000 Austinites living at or below 200 percent of the poverty line in middle-skills jobs by 2021.

“Middle-skill jobs are jobs that are family-supporting jobs,” said Tamara Atkinson, executive director of the Workforce Solutions Capital Area. “They’re the fastest path to help some be able to support themselves and their families, and they require skills training that is beyond high school diploma but less than four years at UT.”

The Alamo Colleges District, the San Antonio-based community colleges network, has similar initiatives. It is currently searching for a vice chancellor for economic and workforce development. The network provides on-demand customized training, employee assessments and industry certifications. Workforce training includes construction, oil and gas and manufacturing, as well as leadership, IT and health care.

Alamo Colleges recently announced plans to build a $23 million training center on the west side of San Antonio, where it hopes to give community partners more room to host educational programs. In recent years Alamo Colleges has developed links to outside groups to maximize its workforce development efforts, like a partnership with Codeup on a $2 million federal grant to prepare IT workers.

“We have an 18-week course that turns people into web developers,” Codeup Vice President of Operations Phillip Hernandez said. “In our last cohort, 63 percent had offers in their hand before graduation.”

In addition to getting the hard skills a web developer needs, Codeup takes great care to refine students with a more holistic approach that includes linking them up with networking opportunities, custom business cards and headshots, and even a polished resume and LinkedIn profile. 

But what about those traditional middle-skill jobs? An electrician and a plumber are considered middle-skills jobs. So are dental hygienists, paralegals and police officers. In fact, 53 percent of job openings in 2015 were middle-skill jobs that require less than a four-year degree, according to the National Skills Coalition.

“The reality is that classroom-based training — the kind where you sit in a classroom and absorb the information and then you’re expected to go out and be an asset in the workplace — simply doesn’t happen anymore,” Atkinson said. “It probably hasn’t happened in a long time.”

What manufacturers want

Groves was hired at ACC to take a deep dive into regional workforce needs and industry projections. ACC, led by President and CEO Richard Rhodes, has moved from working with one company at a time to working with hospital systems and regional boards, such as the workforce committee of the Austin Regional Manufacturers Association, or ARMA.

A meeting between Groves and the workforce committee of ARMA focuses on skill challenges and training options, not a particular associate’s degree.

“Manufacturers know they can’t find entry-level workers with the production skills they need,” Groves said. “We have students looking for jobs. We need to talk about certification. If we look at a particular one, does it meet their needs, and if it meets their needs, would they agree to give preferential hiring because of that certification?”

A survey of 100 Central Texas manufacturers completed last year indicated 88 percent found hiring and retaining talent to be a significant challenge. Businesses, especially smaller companies, reported challenges in balancing contract and permanent labor. And while certificates were great, the pool of candidates was not large enough to be selective.

The region has low unemployment, but industry also has had trouble attracting qualified applicants for high-demand jobs, said ARMA Executive Director Ed Latson.

“There’s not been a clear pathway for students. There’s not been a coordinated campaign from industry to promote the careers. So there are a lot of places where things are breaking down,” said Latson, who is working on programs to attract student interest. “I do feel like things are changing, that a lot of forces are coming together to make a change.”

How to 'stack' skills

Some terminology to know in the middle-skills arena: there are “stackable credentials” and “sub-degree programs” that could lead to a full degree — but students may also choose not to get a full degree. The focus incorporates on-the-job training and paid internships, with the potential focus on advancing through a career path.

Atkinson refers to it as applied learning, a more focused approach to job skills, one that starts with a baseline and then “stacks” skills on top.

“I believe firmly that the future of workforce development is marrying work with learning. So what does that look like?” Atkinson said. “It’s going to look like enough classroom training to the point where a person has enough theoretical and applied background to be confident in an industry area or occupation. We’re going to see more applied learning on the job through paid internships, where a person can go and really see what it’s like on the inside of a company. It means the business community and training providers have to work together.”

That’s especially important to Groves because ACC wants students to leave with the skills and competencies that have value in the labor market.

“We’re looking for certificates that match our needs, but that’s only about half of it,” Groves said. “We can produce a lot of students who have certification, but if they don’t know they’re getting a leg up in the economy, then it’s just as likely they’re going to talk to each other and say, ‘Forget it. You can get that job without a certification.’”

That means Groves does less talking and more facilitating when he meets with industry groups. What exactly do manufacturers need? More soft foundational skills, like people showing up to work on time? And if it’s going to be skills, which skills will it be that could cross industries? The precision in purpose is important, given Austin’s low unemployment numbers.

“When we’re going through a recession, it’s less of an urgent need because there are people looking for work, and you can find someone right away,” Groves said. “When we’re below 3 percent [unemployment] ... it really ratchets up the urgency, and that’s why we’re able to have a different conversation than what we might otherwise have.” 

Rodriguez said Ascension is committed not only to hiring candidates, but also progressing them to higher-paying jobs. Ascension has contracts with Goodwill and Skillpoint Alliance to train people in entry-level jobs, but the commitment is to the person, not just filling a job.

“We want people who have a willingness to work hard and provide them with educational opportunities so they can have high-demand health care careers. We want them to be able to live here,” Rodriguez said. “That, to me, is a vision consistent with our mission, that is worthy of spending all our political capital and our resources. After all, at the end of the day, we are called to serve the poor and the vulnerable. And this is just another way to do it.”