Even as the delta variant’s surge wanes and a vaccine for young children appears on the horizon, San Antonio’s workplaces remain in the grips of massive pandemic disruption.

In the last virtual panel for this year’s CityFest, three experts discussed the opportunity at hand for safer, better-paying and more equitable work environments.

The “Future of Work in San Antonio,” recorded live on Friday, touched on the importance of child care, changing expectations around work flexibility, and whether workers can build on recent gains in wages and benefits.

The work panel followed one on startups and innovation in San Antonio.

Panelists for the “Future of Work” discussion were Teresa Harrison, Associate Professor of Management at the University of the Incarnate Word; Michael Ramsey, Executive Director of Workforce Development at the City of San Antonio; and Afamia Elnakat, an environmental scientist and consultant.

San Antonio Report Story Editor Tracy Idell Hamilton moderated the discussion.

Employment is in major flux in San Antonio and across the nation, with millions quitting their jobs in search of more fulfilling work, while certain sectors in the economy, most notably health care, education, retail, and hospitality, are unable to fill open positions. Some companies are offering higher wages and better benefits to lure workers back.

Ramsey said that current mismatch will be taken into account as the city develops SA Ready to Work, a $200 million taxpayer funded effort to move thousands of San Antonians into better paying jobs, by listening closely to local employers and aligning the program’s trainings to meet demand.

SA Ready to Work will also seek to raise the education level in San Antonio, where Ramsey said only 28% of residents have a bachelor’s degree, which he said is low compared to other Texas cities.

Harrison acknowledged that the pandemic has been hardest on people of color, especially women. She praised recent public efforts of corporations to address racial inequalities, such as the recently formed Corporate Partners for Racial Equity in San Antonio, in which 12 corporate partners collectively pledged nearly $14 million to address local inequities.

“Employers need to make sure they’re taking action and just putting money on the table,” she said. “And employees need to get involved and speak up about these initiatives.”

Elnakat urged workers and employers to take care in creating a work environment that can bolster mental health, which has taken a collective beating during the pandemic. Simple things, such as ample use of windows or the right lighting, can boost employee productivity and retention. She also said employees are looking for more flexibility.

“I stopped using the word ‘hybrid.’ The employee is not looking for hybrid, strict schedules. We are looking for a safe, comfortable environment that gives us flexibility — that if our kid gets quarantined from school that we can stay with them,” she said. “And when we’re able to go to the office, we feel at home.”

Earlier Friday, CityFest and San Antonio Startup Week joined forces for a crossover event on “The Future of Innovation, Technology and Journalism.”

The panel discussion featured San Antonio Report Publisher and CEO Angie Mock, Geekdom CEO Charles Woodin, and serial entrepreneur and Texas A&M University Director of New Ventures Chris Scotti, and was moderated by tech startup mentor Dax Moreno.

The conversation touched on the future of digital news, the “knowledge worker” economy, and what the pandemic has meant for startups. Panelists expressed optimism for the future.

“A new cancer-fighting drug, a solar panel, space technology — that’s what’s going to keep our country great and our economy growing,” Scotti said.

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Waylon Cunningham

Waylon Cunningham covered business and technology for the San Antonio Report.