Driving through the Rio Grande Valley, growth is evident not only in the number of businesses that its residents have started over the years, but also in the number of out-of-town companies that have found a home in the Valley.
Having outside companies settling in the region depends on the support of local leaders who may offer incentives to startups. But a company’s ability to grow will also depend on the availability of a wide-ranging workforce, from those who hold college degrees to those who have mastered other skills via training and certificate programs.
“The way program development works is that you are sitting down with industry and you are asking them one simple question: ‘What do you need?’” said Dr. Joe Fleishman, associate vice president of instruction for workforce training and continuing education at Texas Southmost College.
Seems simple enough, right? But it doesn’t end with coming up with a curriculum and filling a room with students. It also involves having the flexibility needed to change the course along the way to reflect how the industry is changing — such as being up to date with new software and new machinery.
Having industry representatives at the table is key for ensuring a program is developed with a full understanding of what skills the students need to have in order to get hired.
A workforce program is required to have an advisory board to fulfill this need, said Laura Salas, program chair for the architectural and engineering design technology program at South Texas College.
“They are the ones that advise us and tell us what they need in their workforce,” Salas said. “What we get from them is a well-rounded summary and we take that into our curriculum … we strategically choose the courses that best align with what the board tells us.”
Industry advisors play roles in the creation of short-term training offered at TCS in various areas like industrial scaffolding and insulation installation. They also advise in other certificate programs that could lead to college degrees, such as STC’s architectural and engineering offerings.
“The evolution is inevitable simply because the tools that we use are computer related and software related,” said Hugo Avila, engineer and project manager at DBR Engineering Consultants Inc. “So going to these advisory meetings, we start talking about, ‘Hey, this software just came out … do the (students) that you produce know this?’”
Avila has been involved in STC’s advisory board for 20 years. The collaboration allows the college to look ahead at what companies are implementing, or planning to implement, he said, and it pushes the company itself to be up to date on changes coming down the pipeline to inform the educators.
Another key aspect of the evolution of some programs is understanding that once students get into a specific path, they may want to continue their education beyond a certificate or training, Salas said.
“We had to take a step back and analyze our programs for those that want to continue beyond the workforce program,” she said. “So we brought in intro classes that are fully transferable to any architectural program for a professional degree.”
Many students choose to transfer to local universities and seek degrees that allow them to grow within their current company, she said, and others may leave the Valley to gain those degrees. Even if they leave, many end up bringing that knowledge back to the Valley to start new businesses or fill open positions that they didn’t qualify for in the past.
Both Salas and Fleishman said building these relationships with current and prospective companies allows students to enter a field knowing their investment in time and money will pay off with a job.
“What I would tell every person in the world is that everyone is a college student,” Fleishman said. “As a comprehensive community college, we acknowledge that some students are seeking a degree and others a career.”
Whether it is for a degree or a career program, it’s in a company’s best interest to become involved in such advising and even internship programs with colleges, Avila said. This allows them to provide needed input while exposing the students to the field early on.
“It gives both parties the ability to feel each other out and say, ‘I like the way you work,’ and hopefully that leads to a good relationship to where they get hired,” Avila said. “By the same token, a student may go in there and say, ‘This is not the right industry for me.’’’