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Transit jobs, affordability concerns added as priorities for area job training plan

Thursday, November 11, 2021 by Chad Swiatecki

Job training leaders are emphasizing the rising cost of housing in the Austin area as one of the pain points that can be solved through education and rapid placement with major employers in need of workers.

Workforce Solutions Capital Area is putting the finishing touches on its new Hire Local campaign, which is an update of the 2017 Community Workforce Plan that emphasized health care, information technology, skilled trades and advanced manufacturing as the four areas with the most demand and job growth potential. The organization is expected to complete the plan next month and launch it in January, with a series of community engagement sessions that will address a need to create more awareness about the training courses and earning potential for low-income residents.

Tamara Atkinson, CEO of Workforce Solutions, said transportation and construction jobs tied to the multibillion-dollar Project Connect transit plan are an additional area of opportunity for those looking for new career options. The organization’s data shows low-income enrollees who begin jobs in their selected fields tend to see an increase of $30,000 per year in earnings.

“We’ve learned a lot about what the community needs in terms of the skilled workforce, and along the way several things have changed even though our mission stays the same. Through Covid quite a few people have been disproportionately impacted and that has meant the prosperity of low unemployment, job opportunities and financial gains in lots of these industries have not been seen by everyone in the community,” she said.

“The Hire Local plan is targeted at making sure we address underrepresented parts of the population so they can get the skilled training to compete for good jobs being created in a strong economy.”

Workforce Solutions serves as the main clearinghouse for job training programs in the Austin area, and works with Austin Community College, Skillpoint Alliance, Goodwill Industries and other community organizations that can help to meet the hiring needs of high-profile employers like Tesla, Samsung Austin Semiconductor and Athena Manufacturing. The updated plan doesn’t require approval from City Council or the Travis County Commissioners Court, though both entities have contracts with Workforce Solutions for services such as job training and placement and child care.

Last year the city and Travis County agreed to provide $3.2 million to fund Workforce Solutions’ RE:WorkNOW program that was created to move 260 people back into jobs in the aftermath of the pandemic. RE:WorkNOW was also identified as the main source of potential new plumbers to meet the acute need following Winter Storm Uri in February.

Kevin Brackmeyer, executive director of Skillpoint Alliance, said the Hire Local emphasis on outreach and awareness will be important because recent experiences show low-income candidates are unaware of the job opportunities available to them through free training programs. Skillpoint Alliance graduates up to 200 people per year from its various skilled trades courses, and its most recent funding from the city and Travis County totaled just over $550,000.

“If you take Samsung Austin Semiconductor, at one point when I was talking to someone there they had 30 open positions,” he said. “Tesla is the same and Athena Manufacturing has many open positions, and recently the CEO over there said they had 20 positions they needed to fill. It’s just a matter of finding the people who can make a career in these positions and getting the word out so they know about the free trainings that are available to them.”

Brackmeyer said the demand for workers covered by local training programs is expected to reach more than 15,000 in the next two years.

“The need is there and our work and the work of Workforce Solutions and other organizations is driven by that demand,” he said. “We understand there are certain industries that are in higher demand than others, and we’re seeing students hire right after completion of their training.”

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