etting to the top of the mountain and staying there are two different things.
Just ask Aaron Demerson. As the Commissioner Representing Employers for the Texas Workforce Commission and longtime leader in state government, he’s seen the highs and lows of Texas’ economic development performance and everything in between.
Lately, it’s been more highs than lows. On March 1, Texas was named the winner of the annual Site Selection Governor’s Cup competition for a record 10th year in a row, topping every other state in the nation in total corporate facility investment project performance.
“It ain’t bragging if it’s true,” says Demerson, a native of Belton, Texas, near Temple and a graduate of Texas A&M-Kingsville. “We’ve won the Governor’s Cup for 10 years. For 17 years in a row, we’ve been named the Best State for Business by CEOs. We are the top state for population growth, and we are perennially a top state for women- and minority-owned business growth.”
Attaining these benchmarks wasn’t easy; nor is it easy to maintain Texas’ lofty leadership position, says Demerson. At the center of this achievement is a consistent dedication to workforce development, attraction and retention. At every level of the state — local, regional and statewide — Texas excels at this.
In a recent conversation with Demerson, he outlined the state’s approach to worker training and discussed how Texas is adapting to new realities like remote working, worker shortages and rapidly changing job requirements.
What lessons did you learn about workforce development during the pandemic?
DEMERSON: We learned that over-communicating is a key for ensuring all are on the same page, especially when experiencing something of this magnitude. Here in my office, during the pandemic we were very responsive, took a proactive approach and made sure we were over-communicating to ensure our Texas employers had the most up to date and relevant information necessary for operating their business during a pandemic. We wanted to ensure no Texan was left behind. We did this by hosting over 70 virtual town halls throughout the state with elected officials, Chamber of Commerce groups and industry organizations and associations all with a focus on ensuring our Texas employers had their concerns addressed and questions answered.
We also learned that our Texas employers are strong, resilient and many had employee concerns at the top of their list.
Has the Texas Workforce Commission enacted any new programs during the past year?
DEMERSON: Yes. In line with another form of effective communication, we listened very intently to the needs of our Texas employers, and from that we were able to quickly create resources and develop new programs and initiatives. In direct response to the pandemic, we created a Skills Development Fund COVID-19 Special Initiative. We awarded funding in response to the training needs of Texas employers adversely affected by the pandemic, and funding efforts/programs for those employers who were retooling their business operations to meet the needs for COVID-19 related necessities.
Another example is the Texas Restaurant Recovery Initiative. During the pandemic, the restaurants were one of the industries hardest hit and we wanted to provide them with extra resources to navigate the pandemic. This initiative helped restaurants in developing new strategies to operate safely, leverage new technologies, and maximize their profits. They did this through a series of training videos that shared best practices to assist employers in adapting to contactless operations and new service trends. It was the only program of its kind in the country. Here are programs we started to help people:
Metrix Training Program: One way we are helping our Texans get back to work is by providing a way to enhance their current skills through the Metrix Program. The program is free of charge and offers access to over 5,000 online courses. You can register through WorkInTexas.com.
Larry the Chatbot: During the pandemic, we were receiving millions and millions of phone calls. To help lessen the call volume, we created Larry the Chatbot, named after our previous Executive Director Larry Temple. It has remained a permanent fixture on our website to help field general questions.
How did the TWC adapt to the new reality of remote working? How did it affect your training programs?
DEMERSON: Here at TWC, we remained flexible, and even though our place of work changed, our mission never changed. Our goal was and is to promote a workforce system that creates value and provides employers, individuals, and communities with an opportunity to achieve and sustain economic prosperity, and we continued to do this by doing our best to provide Texans with a job and career.
“Our unemployment rate is at 4.8%, and we have seen a record employment level of close to 14 million jobs.”
— Aaron Demerson, Commissioner, Texas Workforce Commission
I would say the pandemic had an impact on our training programs. However, many of those providing the training and those receiving the training made the necessary adjustments. Like many of us, things moved to either a virtual platform, a hybrid platform or an in-person platform while staying within the guidelines issued at the federal, state and local level.
The pandemic induced creativity and flexibility. Our training providers continued to be innovative and adapted quickly to the new way of doing business. They adhered to the CDC guidelines and determined the next best steps for success. Texans are very resilient, and these Texas employers and essential worker employees and others were willing and ready to adapt and overcome to ensure needs were being met.
Many occupations are experiencing severe worker shortages. These shortfalls are especially acute in trucking, transportation, and logistics jobs. How is Texas attacking this issue?
DEMERSON: It all comes back to communication. We made sure we remained in contact with those entities being impacted. Also, here in Texas, we have 28 local workforce solutions offices that are the “boots on the ground” in their respective regions of Texas. Texas is big! You can drive for 14 hours and still be in Texas, so we have 28 separate regions that are the eyes and ears on the ground for their area. They are really the frontline resource for the local employers in their respective area and for helping them find and keep skilled talent and a pipeline for additional talent. They have hosted job fairs, helped conduct interviews, and can even help develop specific recruiting plans. They can even help local employers explore funding options for education and training of new employees. They are really a one-stop-shop and an invaluable resource.
Towards the beginning of the pandemic and just recently, we hosted virtual Industry Roundtables that brought the top industries associations in Texas together. We had the Trucking Industry, the Hotel and Lodging Industry, Manufacturing Industry, Texas Restaurant Association, the National Federation of Independent Business-Texas, the Governor’s Office and the Texas Travel Alliance.