Getting people trained for jobs during the pandemic-fueled economic crisis continues to be a top priority for local officials, but the pipeline from candidates to careers often is blocked by a lack of basic qualifications, a jobs-training organization leader told Bexar County commissioners Tuesday.

Romanita Matta-Barrera, the executive director of SA Works, updated commissioners Tuesday on the organization’s progress and goals throughout the coronavirus pandemic. Bexar County partnered with SA Works to launch its own workforce development initiative, Bexar County Strong Workforce Program, putting $177,000 in federal coronavirus relief funds into the initiative last July.

“SA Works brought their network and their expertise to convening folks around that demand side to help to ensure that we’re not living on information that may have been outdated, given the pandemic,” said David Marquez, director of the County’s economic development department.

On Tuesday, Matta-Barrera presented her organization’s final report to commissioners. SA Works found that training is often not enough to overcome foundational educational gaps, Matta-Barrera said. She said participating employers in the manufacturing, skilled trade, and aerospace industries who provide on-the-job training pointed out a “skill set mismatch” that was highlighted during the coronavirus pandemic.

Many of those impacted at the start of the pandemic were younger workers, those ages 18 to 34, Matta-Barrera said.

“And then about 80% had only a high school diploma or less,” she said. “So educational attainment really impacted their ability to be able to even enter some of the entry-level skill trades or manufacturing jobs available.

“In some cases, it wasn’t even just training – folks needed to be put into GED programs. That really became a challenge as … we’re saying, ‘Hey, take some folks, put them on the job training.’ But the reality is that there was just a huge mismatch with the actual pool of potential candidates available.”

It was a message similar to one delivered to the San Antonio City Council last week.

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said public education must be bolstered to address that educational gap when it’s most effective.

“It’s very hard to teach an old dog new tricks,” he said. “I can verify that. So you’ve got to reach them when they’re young. If you don’t reach them when they’re young, it’s very very hard to turn somebody’s life around.”

That skill set mismatch appeared again with information technology jobs, Matta-Barrera said.

“If we look at our employers across the board, especially our larger IT employers, they’re still asking for a four-year degree, a minimum of a bachelor’s degree,” she said. “So when we think about … the folks that lost their jobs that only had maybe a high school diploma or less, [it’s a] major mismatch with what the actual employers … are offering.”

Matta-Barrera also highlighted the digital divide as a barrier to connecting people with employers. As companies rely more on remote recruiting, attendees of SA Works’ digital job fairs last fall struggled to navigate the virtual format, she said.

“I think I would have struggled myself, quite frankly,” Matta-Barrera said. “It can’t be easy. … I think that speaks to one of the key areas of focus, that digital divide. People not being able to either go in person or not even having access to reliable bandwidth at home to navigate the job fair virtually.”

The concerns that employers have about lack of educational attainment and internet access are not new to Bexar County, Commissioner Rebeca Clay-Flores (Pct. 1) pointed out.

“The digital divide – it wasn’t the pandemic that made us realize it. We knew that,” she said. “But the pandemic forced us, even people who didn’t care before, to acknowledge the fact.”

Also in the arena of workforce development, county commissioners approved a four-year plan Tuesday from Workforce Solutions Alamo, which covers Atascosa, Bandera, Bexar, Comal, Frio, Gillespie, Guadalupe, Karnes, Kendall, Kerr, McMullen, Medina, and Wilson counties. The workforce building organization’s chief information officer, Andrea Guerrero-Guajardo, laid out a strategic plan covering 2021 to 2024 that focuses on health care, aerospace and manufacturing, and information technology and cybersecurity as some of the most in-demand industries in the region and prioritized training people for jobs in those sectors. The plan also highlighted Workforce Solutions Alamo’s goal to expand access to its services.

County commissioners on Tuesday also approved its agendas for the Texas Legislature and Congress. Priorities for Congress included funding for air quality, military, and transportation, while in the state Legislature the County will focus on bail reform, broadband internet expansion, and redistricting, said Melissa Shannon, director of governmental affairs.

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.