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Early data suggests progress on city, county workforce development goals

Friday, September 27, 2019 by Chad Swiatecki

Some early returns on the two-year workforce development plan unveiled by city and county leaders in 2017 suggest progress is being made at improving the earning power of the area’s residents who are living in poverty.

Those findings were among the discussion points Wednesday at the grand opening of the new North Career Center for Workforce Solutions Capital Area, a nonprofit that is leading local efforts to place local workers in steady, middle-class jobs in part to counteract the economic pressures leading to gentrification in sections of Austin’s north and eastern regions.

The data compiled from the Ray Marshall Center for the Study of Human Resources at the University of Texas show an 80 percent increase in completion rates for those entering postsecondary job training programs, and a small increase in the rate of trainees securing a new job. The primary goal of the 2017 plan was to help 10,000 area residents escape poverty levels by 2021, with the first full year of analysis showing 517 people meeting that metric.

Tamara Atkinson, CEO of Workforce Solutions, said there has been a decrease in the number of people enrolling in job training programs since the plan was unveiled.

She said her group’s leadership is using state and federal dollars to fund two new programs designed to attract new job training enrollees. One program places career specialists in area schools to help eighth graders build interest in technical training, while the other subsidizes part of the cost of up-skill training programs to help companies move entry-level workers into higher positions with better wages.

“Three years ago I don’t know that I would have readily identified those two tactics as top of mind, but as our economy has remained robust, and we’re proud of that, we see those are two tactics our business community is asking for, our chambers of commerce are asking for, and our schools and educators are asking for,” she said. “The people we’re putting through training programs are getting a first job and that’s a step in the right direction; however, in all cases is an entry-level job enough to support themselves and their families in the current economy?”

The new career center will serve as Workforce Solutions’ flagship location, one of three in the area. It will offer more counselors to assist people who are job-hunting, and will provide 39 meeting and conference spaces for employers to meet with candidates who are enrolled in or have completed a training program.

Atkinson said the new location was chosen because the former flagship space near Austin Community College’s Highland Mall campus was becoming prohibitively expensive. In addition, various “heat maps” of the city’s job needs showed East Austin as having the greatest potential for finding candidates interested in new careers.

The city provided a no-interest loan to Workforce Solutions to help open the center and Travis County provided a grant of $460,000.

The 2017 workforce plan emphasized health care, information technology and advanced manufacturing as the three job fields most in demand by employers, and thus offering the best chances for people looking for a better job.

While Wednesday’s event offered some of the data regarding progress on the jobs plan, a full report will be released at the end of the week.

Mayor Steve Adler said he is encouraged by the early results of the job training programs, and that the practice of tracking training outcomes and the advancements made by graduates will help for years to come.

He said the city’s ongoing efforts to rework its economic incentives programs specifically toward workforce development goals need to produce results.

“The numbers from our baseline year are looking really good. We weren’t measuring anything like this before, and if you don’t measure what you’re doing you won’t be able to know if you’re improving,” he said. “The dollars the city and county set aside show that we want to focus on communities with the greatest needs. And I expect our (economic incentives programs) to continue to be in perfect alignment with that as well.”

Photo by Jonathan Cutrer made available through a Creative Commons license.

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