After more than a year of mask mandates, government quarantines, and widespread unemployment, there is light at the end of the tunnel for the South Texas labor force.
Texans who were laid off or furloughed from their jobs, and forced to live off the occasional government stimulus check, unemployment, or the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation Program as a result of the novel coronavirus outbreak, have slowly been returning to work.
Julian Alvarez, who grew up in Harlingen, has served as the Texas Workforce commissioner for labor, representing the interests of more than 14 million working Texans since his appointment in 2016, and he sees a lot of promise for the South Texas region.
“My job here at the Texas Workforce Commission is to make sure we have the skilled workers for in-demand occupations,” he said.
Alvarez said that while jobs in the service industries such as restaurants, hospitality occupations, and retailers were among the hardest hit, educators were among the most numerous filers for unemployment in Texas during the health crisis.
However, Alvarez said those jobs are coming back strong with the reopening of the state’s economy, with many offering signing bonuses or slightly higher wages than before the coronavirus outbreak.
These service industry jobs are also being spurred by the growth of other industry sectors, such as the tech industry, health care, and aerospace, which are offering higher paying wages.
Even in the months before COVID-19, the South Texas region was beginning to emerge as an attractive market for high-tech industry occupations in education, health care, logistics, and aerospace.
Much of that is a result of new growth — and grant partnerships with schools and employers to provide up-skill training to new or current employees.
“There were many different reasons why people were not returning to work right away. It wasn’t just because they were receiving their PEU benefits. It’s other things,” Alvarez said. “It could be that we did a really good job of re-skilling and re-tooling these individuals.”
Alvarez said there were probably instances of employees who were working as hotel maids before the pandemic who’d been laid off and used this time to obtain a new skill and retrain, such as coding or in cybersecurity.
Much of the training was offered by the Texas Workforce Center at local community colleges, or online through the METRIX program linked to the WorkInTexas.com website.
At the height of the pandemic, displaced workers were advised by the Texas Workforce Centers in their area to use these free METRIX learning services to add new occupational skills badges that could help to new and promising careers.
“This has been very successful,” Alvarez said. “Thousands have gone through this program, at no expense to them, and we are continuing this because of its success.”
However, Alvarez says retraining and upskilling the Rio Grande Valley workforce is only part of the process. The other part of the Valley’s brighter economic future are the types of jobs that have emerged after several years of grant funding to create a high-tech workforce.
For instance, the Mission Economic Development Commission worked collaboratively with the TWC to launch a $150,000 high-tech boot camp to train individuals interested in cybersecurity careers, all of which was made possible using a $75,000 High-Demand Job Training grant from the TWC.
“It’s interesting that many of those people who completed this program are not working for municipalities, for banks and healthcare institutions, so it’s amazing what they are doing,” Alvarez said.
There is also a critical need for registered nurses in the Valley. Alvarez revealed that the TWC was working in partnership with Doctors Hospital at Renaissance on a skills development grant program that will train physician’s assistants in a specific medical specialty, such as wound care, internal medicine, or mental health.
“No one else in the country is doing anything like this,” he said. “PAs graduate with a PA degree, but they don’t go into any specific medical specialty. DHR is going to train these individuals — with our help — to serve in a specific healthcare department. This is amazing.”
In high-tech news, Tesla is looking to hire skilled employees at its Brownsville Service Center after they receive the necessary training at Texas State Technical College in Harlingen and nearby community colleges.
Meanwhile, SpaceX, which has its launch site in Boca Chica, is also looking to hire skilled workers, such as welders, aerospace engineers, mathematicians, and technicians. Alvarez said SpaceX has discussed developing their own local pool of talent with his office and local school districts.
“These careers are going to be out there,” he said. “These companies are hiring local talent. They are picking the best of the best.”
Training in these new careers is happening thanks to the $16 million Jobs and Education for Texas grant (JET) program from the TWC, which pays for the technical equipment needed to train and certify employees for better paying jobs.
“Some of the smartest people are from the Valley, and they are going to stay there,” he said. “We are growing our own doctors, we are interviewing our doctors that are going to stay here, and we are creating slots for our doctors. I think that is what you are going to see here with SpaceX and other high-tech companies.”
So, what happens next?
Creating a better quality of life for the young adults from the Valley, who are graduating from high school and college is critical, Alvarez says.
That begins with providing access to these job training skills, and job training certification in high-tech careers that fosters and maintains a home-grown workforce.
In some respects, Alvarez believes there is already a big economic development and cultural shift underway in the Valley, and that it is a shift driven by companies like SpaceX and Doctors Hospital at Renaissance, which will attract more high-tech companies to South Texas in the not-so-distant future.
“Young kids are seeing these changes happening right now in front of them,” he said. “How amazing is it that kids in South Texas can see a rocket launch from their backyard? That just makes things possible. If you can see yourself being a physicist or an aerospace engineer, then you will probably be able to do it.”