iant checks are for photo ops. The figures on those checks point to real-life ops.
Bolstered by an additional $50 million from the Texas Education Agency, the Jobs and Education for Texas grant program administered by the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC) has produced a record crop of giant ceremonial checks, and $8.6 million for FY2023 means there are more yet to come.
Luci Miller is the third-generation president and owner of Austin-based Miller IDS, the printer of those TWC checks. “We saw a 70% increase in the oversized presentation checks ordered between 2021 and 2022 by TWC,” she confirms, while noting that big checks are ceremonial and not cashable. “TWC has budgeted for approximately the same increase — 70% — for 2023 due to a record number of awarded grantees,” she says. “How exciting for the recipients!”
From nursing mannequins to welding equipment to vehicle diagnostics systems, those checks are being applied immediately to opportunities in high-demand career fields as the state experiences record-busting growth.
“We were able to get a lot of awards out there,” says Aaron Demerson, the veteran workforce and economic development leader serving as commissioner representing employers for the Texas Workforce Commission. Overall, the TWC team has awarded around 335 JET grants averaging $280,000 apiece. “We have traveled the state doing check signing presentations. In rural communities we’re seeing students and employers come together, involved in the curriculum, so when those students graduate, if they’re not going into a 2-year or 4-year college, they’re walking right into a job or career. And they can continue getting an education too.”
The opportunities stretch across the TWC’s 28 regions, where 28 very engaged workforce solutions boards take seriously their roles as catalysts for people’s futures — and employers’ futures too. In Northeast Texas for example, a workforce solutions office is on site at Weatherford College so students know about looming intern, apprentice and job opportunities as soon as they become available. On the Lamar State College Orange campus in southeast Texas, nursing students now train on JET-supported equipment identical to what they’ll use at a major healthcare employer. Alamo College positioned their local workforce solutions at the San Antonio Food Bank.
“The thought process is, ‘If they’re coming for food and need that, they may need a job opportunity as well,’” says Demerson, who attended the grand opening. “It’s another innovative approach to meeting people where they are.”
Where many people are is already at the workplace. February 2023 marked two full years of uninterrupted monthly job growth in Texas. Since February 2022, 611,400 jobs have been added. “To sustain this growth,” said TWC Chairman Bryan Daniel, “TWC supports initiatives to develop a skilled workforce to match employer needs and provide Texans with the skills necessary to succeed.”
“If you’re looking to begin a new career or improve your current employment,” added TWC Commissioner Representing Labor Alberto Treviño III, who just joined the commission in 2023 after a long career in law enforcement and border patrol, “TWC is a resource for training and upskilling.
Fortune Favors the Flexible
“We continue to boom in Texas,” Demerson says. “I go to rural and urban communities and the cranes are out and folks are working. We continue to lead the nation in jobs and have done that for two full years of uninterrupted job growth.”
In March, Demerson found himself in Houston at SelecTransportation Resources, which is building a new 300,000-sq.-ft., stand-alone training facility for diesel mechanics, complete with men’s and women’s locker rooms as this field like others gets proactive about recruiting women into the profession.
“A lot of them making six figures and some are making $150,000 or even approaching $200,000,” Demerson says of diesel technicians. “They have it set up so the training facility will be open 24/7. They’re really attuned to their workforce. We’re seeing that throughout Texas.”
TWC Chair Bryan Daniel, the commissioner representing the public and lifelong career & technical education advocate, couldn’t agree more. He says community colleges especially — even as they suffer from a drop in enrollment — are waking up to the notion of maintaining informal partnerships with businesses so their employees can schedule classes around their work days.
“Lone Star College in Houston is doing a really good job of evening and Saturday classes,” he says. While some students may indeed transfer to a university at some point, he says, Lone Star and other colleges realize that many individuals have a good job and are trying to keep it or improve their value with credentials. “The community colleges are asking, ‘When does your shift end? We’ll work with your employer and get you in there afternoons and weekends.’ ”
“Companies are working in lots of different arrangements,” Daniel says, “but the crux is ‘I have a good employee, I like what this employee does, but we need one or two credentials and I’ll make allowances so we can do that.’ I don’t think we saw that kind of planning even five to seven years ago.”
One area the TWC is focused on more than ever is the multifaceted Middle Skills Initiative, focused on the hundreds of thousands of jobs available to those with some education beyond high school but less than a four-year degree. The agency in 2022 directed $4 million in funding toward apprenticeships in middle-skill careers. “Eliminating the middle skills gap in Texas is critical to continuing to grow our Texas economy and the registered apprenticeship model is one of the best solutions to get our workforce trained and upskilled quickly,” Daniel said when the funding was announced in early 2022. “These programs will be the first non-competitive apprenticeship programs managed at the state level, opening the door to funding for employers with multiple locations across Texas.”
There are more than 693 registered apprenticeship programs in the state, with 22,753 active participants. In addition, Chapter 133 apprenticeships have trained over approximately 20,000 apprentices in the past three years, with an investment of $14.6 million. Texas also has dedicated $15 million to a healthcare apprenticeships initiative.
The partnership stories abound: In their quest for good technicians, North Texas Automobile Dealers have partnered with Tarrant College on a program whereby students are simultaneously working as shop assistants and, once they pass the proper certification tests, are able to enter a job market where salaries can range from $80,000 to $100,000.
“Between the end of February 2022 and the end of February 2023, 611,400 jobs were added in Texas — more than in any other state.”
Source: Texas Workforce Commission and U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
Asked how industry-specific credential and training programs are growing in such hot areas as semiconductors, healthcare & life sciences, and logistics/transportation, Daniel notes the two tracks of state-certified professions and industry-based credentials. He says the same middle skills needed in other industries are needed by chip makers too: HVAC, plumbers, welders, etc. And sometimes the requisite skills can come from the most unexpected areas.
“Companies are matching skills across industries,” he says. “Samsung has had a huge fab making wafers here in Austin for a long time. They were talking to me the other day and said they talk a lot to dental hygienists because they are used to working in a small space.”
Daniel says middle skills jobs in Texas amount to about 54% of all jobs. Qualifying for them is sometimes just a matter of a credential or two, he says, “maybe a six-week or six-month course. We call that the middle skills gap simply because we have enough people in Texas to fill 1 million more jobs if we can get the training. It’s not a failure of schools. This is what technology does to the workforce.”
As companies and individuals alike reassess and reprioritize after the pandemic, it’s the perfect time to address that gap. Daniel says around $22 million is now dedicated to finding strategies to help people overcome it. “If 10% of the workforce could upskill in a year, that’s 1.4 millon people,” he says. “If we could earn them $2 an hour more, that would be transformative.”
Children and the Future
Another topic that’s risen to the top of employers’ and employees’ minds since the pandemic is child care. So TWC has taken the bull by the horns. The agency is investing nearly $173 million for several child care initiatives including free business coaching for providers, additional funding for financial aid for lower-income families in child care services, and assistance for launching employer-supported child care at the workplace or nearby. The funds will allow TWC to continue to support 140,000 children receiving daily child care services across Texas.
“The child care industry is essential to the success of the Texas economy,” said Daniel in March when the funding was announced. “These strategic investments created by TWC support both businesses and families with Texas ingenuity and resourcefulness.”
“Right now employers are saying it’s a major concern,” Demerson says, noting that creative conversations are starting to happen between employers and providers. “I’m preparing a session to bring employers and child care providers together to look at best practices there, and also dive into any of the challenges,” he says. “Employers are raising that flag right now, and we’re listening.
“It’s an evolving thing,” he says, comparing these early days to a time when parental leave also was thought to be a novelty or luxury. “That’s where we are with this right now,” he says. “It’s not surprising that Texas employers are wanting to dive in and look at it. The benefit for us in Texas is, as we get this right, we can market that asset to a company that may be looking at the state and say, ‘Here are folks in your same industry who have done it.’ ”
It all ultimately comes back to the next generation. Daniel mentions a grant that helped Ingram ISD replace welding equipment that was 25 years old with equipment just like that used by a nearby employer.
“You’re still going to need a couple more certificates after high school, but that’s a game changer because it just speeds things up so much,” says Daniel, who took welding himself in high school and before he knew it was using that skill as a grad student at Texas Tech to help teach ag mechanics students. “For schools, coming up with $200,000 or $300,000 to buy new welders doesn’t always rank highly on the list. I’m a CTE guy at heart. A program sings to me because the classroom looks incredibly like the work site. That’s important when you’re 18.”
The TWC’s mission ranges far and wide, including such programs and initiatives as the Texas Works internship program (where employers who hire interns can be reimbursed up to $10 per hour of that intern’s hourly wage); Texas Career Signing Day for high school students choosing in-demand career pathways; the Jobs Y’All web portal for career opportunities in eight high-demand fields; and the Governor’s Texas Talent Connection grant program, which directs Wagner-Peyser 7(b) federal funds to area coalitions for workforce training and job placement.
One of those grants recently went to the Valley Initiative for Development and Advancement (VIDA), which will partner with Workforce Solutions Cameron and Workforce Solutions Lower Rio Grande Valley to provide workforce services for 420 participants enrolled in industry-recognized certificate training programs for occupations in aerospace, liquified natural gas and respiratory therapy. Texas Tech received a program grant to support Critical Infrastructure Security Training while northeast Texas received one to support HVAC training.
In addition to passing out checks, the TWC team also dispenses wisdom on a regular basis via the Texas Conference for Employers, which offers employers, managers and human resource professionals the opportunity to learn about new employment laws, earn education credits, network with peers and talk one-on-one with employment attorneys.
The next day might find the commissioners attending the Texas statewide science fair, featuring some of the state’s best and brightest junior high and high school students.
“You start thinking of what you were doing at that age,” Demerson muses. “These are really sharp kids. The future is quite bright in Texas, and they are the evidence.”