San Antonio City Council members unanimously passed a slate of contracts to execute a long-planned workforce development program Thursday.

SA Ready to Work will be implemented through $185 million in contracts to outside organizations, which will be responsible for providing wraparound services, job training and education as part of a voter-approved program that aims to get tens of thousands of San Antonio residents into higher-paying jobs.

“This is a chance for those who want to make the most of themselves but haven’t been able to do it because of various obstacles,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg said before the vote. “Maybe it was academic challenges, daunting student loans, lack of daycare, institutional or systemic issues. Now we can offer resources to help people break down the barriers to succeed.”

Nirenberg framed the program as a benefit to both businesses and workers in the city, echoing a framing that has from the beginning been offered by the program’s architects, such as City Manager Erik Walsh and Michael Ramsey, executive director of the city’s newly created Workforce Development Office.

“We know there is great talent in this city and we know that employers are searching near and far for employees,” Nirenberg said. “Now we can connect the two for a win-win for San Antonio.”

The program hopes to attract nearly 40,000 applicants, train 36,000, and ultimately place around 28,000 in jobs.

Councilwoman Adriana Rocha Garcia (D4), who serves as one of two council liaisons to the program’s advisory board, praised the program as a continuation of initiatives like the taxpayer-funded Pre-K 4 SA program, which seek to tackle the city’s economic inequalities.

“Our city is known for its income inequality and the widening gap that has marked us as one of the most economically segregated cities in the country — and it’s not by chance, but by intentional design, unfortunately,” she said. “Programs like this are helping change that narrative.”

Though the vote to award the contracts was unanimous, some, such as Councilman Clayton Perry (D10), voiced lingering reservations about the program.

“How effective is this program going to be?” he asked. “I’ll be looking at that very closely.”

Perry is the only member of the current council to have voted against placing the program and a one-eighth-cent sales tax to fund it on the November 2020 ballot; it passed with overwhelming approval from voters.

Councilman Jalen McKee-Rodriguez (D2) said he is excited to partner with the city staff to ensure the residents he represents receive the benefits of this “very, very large investment.” He also said he hopes city staff will be receptive to feedback from constituents who experience frustrations and concerns with the program.

“After Train for Jobs SA, I think everyone is cautiously optimistic about SA Ready to Work,” said Councilwoman Teri Castillo (D5).

Train for Jobs SA was the predecessor program on which SA Ready to Work is based. Launched in the early months of the pandemic, it aimed to provide short-term training to residents who lost their jobs as a result of shutdowns and economic disruption. The program fell short of its goals. During its inception city officials said the program would help 10,000 residents. While slightly more than 5,000 have entered training, only about 1,180 have found new jobs as a result.

Ramsey, whose Workforce Development Office is handling the city’s role in the program, said last week that his office had drawn lessons from that earlier program, which is why SA Ready to Work will try to funnel applicants into the kind of jobs that employers — working closely with the office — specifically need to fill. Instead of short-term training, SA Ready to work aims to provide long-term training, bachelor’s or associate’s degrees.

In addition, the new program has a strong emphasis on outreach and marketing to potential applicants, which Ramsey said the predecessor program largely lacked. To this, local marketing firm Creative Noggin was given a $1.6 million contract. Additionally, COPS/Metro Alliance has agreed to help to spread the word about the program by visiting 500 families in their homes, Ramsey said.

The City of San Antonio is not performing any case management or training services directly. The city’s contracted agencies will be responsible for signing up and sorting applicants, connecting them to training and education programs, providing coaching and financial counseling, distributing emergency funds for applicants’ sudden expenses, and placing them in approved jobs.

For that implementation, the contractors approved Thursday are Workforce Solutions Alamo, whose contract is worth $102.4 million; Project Quest ($26.4 million); the Alamo Colleges ($49.3 million) and Restore Education ($5.1 million). The contracts are for three years with the opportunity for a one-year renewal. The city will require them to maintain a job-placement rate of at least 80% for applicants that complete the training program.

For employer engagement services, SA Talent Inc. was given a one-year contract of up to $100,000. The nonprofit is the workforce development arm of San Antonio’s economic development foundation, which recently renamed itself greater:SATX.

To be eligible for SA Ready to Work, applicants must be at least 18 years old, permitted to work in the United States, a resident of San Antonio, not be currently enrolled in college courses, willing to take assessments related to workforce readiness, and have current income levels that fall below particular guidelines — roughly $34,000 for individuals and $69,000 for a family of four.

The program is expected to begin in April, when a formal application process will become available. Before then, city residents interested in the program can pre-register by calling 3-1-1.

Over 120 companies so far have signed up to hire participants who complete the program. They include H-E-B, Valero, USAA, WellMed, Frost Bank, Toyota Motor Manufacturing Texas, Navistar, CPS Energy, Pape-Dawson Engineers, Habitat for Humanity, Holt Cat, Boeing and a few smaller companies. The construction sector is heavily represented.

While the city is aiming for jobs that pay at least $15 an hour with benefits, there are no legally binding restrictions on the employers that want to participate in the program.

H-E-B, Valero, USAA, Frost Bank, Pape-Dawson Engineers, Toyota Motor Manufacturing Texas, the Alamo Colleges District and CPS Energy are financial supporters of the San Antonio Report. For a full list of business members, click here.

Waylon Cunningham

Waylon Cunningham writes about business and technology. Contact him at waylon@sareport.org.