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A year later, workforce plan pieces coming into alignment

Tuesday, May 29, 2018 by Chad Swiatecki

Nearly a year after Austin, Travis County and an assortment of nonprofit organizations announced a coordinated effort to move low- and middle-income residents into more stable and high-paying jobs, the early talks and planning to make that happen are coming into focus.

At last week’s City Council meeting, a procedural public hearing paved the way for the formal addition next month of the Master Community Workforce Plan to Imagine Austin, which is the city’s plan for the next 30 years. But it’s the work being done with high-profile employers like Samsung and job training providers such as Austin Community College taking place quietly in the background that proponents of the plan expect will soon produce more applicants for positions that employers said they’re having trouble filling.

The workforce plan has a stated goal of creating 60,000 “middle-skill” jobs in three high-growth sectors – health care, information technology and advanced manufacturing – as well as lifting 10,000 residents out of lower-class income brackets.

Since the plan was unveiled last June, employers in similar industries have been courted by Workforce Solutions Capital Area to participate in ongoing sessions to identify the needed soft skills and common challenges that make it difficult for them to find and retain new employees. Their findings are then presented to representatives from Austin Community College, Goodwill of Central Texas and Capital IDEA to help those organizations tailor their existing job training programs to better suit the needs of the market.

Thus far those workforce development programs are being funded in part with $660,000 in workforce data management contracts Workforce Solutions has secured with the city and Travis County, which includes some contributions from Google and JP Morgan Chase. Ongoing fundraising efforts are expected to contribute as well.

“We have now a mix of small and larger employers competing for the same talent. And it’s a situation when you’re a smaller employer, that they’re worried about losing (a new hire) to a larger employer quickly. But that’s not always the case, and we’re trying to better understand the pathways,” said Tiffany Wallace, director of communication and community engagement for Workforce Solutions. “We recognize that companies won’t always be able to hang on to someone because of the high demand that’s out there, but it’s our responsibility to share that market info and look at things like average wage in our areas.”

Wallace said the focus on the candidates supplier side is looking at how existing programs can be improved to increase retention and completion rates before they are expanded to meet increasing demand.

“For something like welding, it’s not that we lack programs, it’s that all of them are at capacity. So we do have to figure out how to increase seats because we’re also in a place where we collect information and share it for possible adjustments,” she said. “We recognize there are a lot of people entering training programs that weren’t completing, and we wanted to understand where the leaks are in the system before we start pumping lots of money into increasing capacity.”

In addition to heavily promoting the collaborative program, the city of Austin is moving ahead with a restructuring of its economic incentives that are intended to help small and mid-size businesses grow and add more employees. Previously the city’s incentive program has been structured solely to attract large employers such as Apple, which tend to heavily favor high-income positions that have lent to the city’s growing affordability crisis.

Caroline Alexander, a program manager and workforce lead for Austin-based TIP Strategies, said the changes to the city’s economic incentives could work well with the area-wide effort, which will depend in large part on employers being willing to share information about their needs in the Austin market.

TIP Strategies is an economic development consulting firm that has produced a number of reports and strategy documents for groups in the Austin area and throughout Texas. It helped create the employer engagement strategy for the workforce plan, and this fall it will complete a new economic development plan for Travis County.

“The common challenge is some businesses are asked for their input and help over and over, while other, smaller businesses are never asked at all,” Alexander said. “This has to be inclusive and more meaningful. And at the beginning, some people might hold their cards close. But as they come up with ways to increase the talent output and create a larger pool, they become more comfortable and realize they can speak with a common voice to have an influence on how things are done.”

This story has been updated to include the fact that Workforce Solutions fundraising includescontributions from Google and JP Morgan Chase.

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