The Tower of Americas and the Alamodome.
The Tower of Americas Credit: Melissa Burnett / Courtesy

In 1997, I came home to San Antonio after spending eight years away. I’d gone off to college and then worked as a statistician in Washington, D.C., and an investment banker in Houston and San Francisco. The pull of my family and my hometown was too strong to resist.

I’ve often asked myself, if I weren’t from here – if I didn’t have family here or my native’s love for the place – would I have packed up a U-Haul and headed to San Antonio? Sadly, the answer is, probably not. The city offered too few career opportunities and too few of the amenities that attract single college graduates, such as cultural offerings and hike-and-bike trails.

That was nearly 20 years ago. We’ve made a lot of strides since then. San Antonio boasts more professional jobs for young people, a distinctive local arts scene, a nucleus of nationally recognized restaurants, and linear parks. We have the makings of an economy built on knowledge and high skills.

But we have a lot of work ahead of us. As Mayor, I will make sure we get it done.

I have a single, heartfelt goal – to make San Antonio a city of opportunity for our children. I will work tirelessly to ensure our college graduates can launch their careers here and workers who learn new, 21st Century skills can get ahead. Everything I do as Mayor, I’ll do to accomplish that goal.

I’ve written previously about how I’d create the conditions to stimulate the creation of 21st Century jobs, higher pay, and more foreign trade and investment. I’d like to expand on a key part of my plan: education – which was a focus of my nearly 15 years as a state lawmaker.

In the United States today, cities are differentiating themselves by adding high-wage jobs and focusing single-mindedly on talent. To build on our enviable employment rate and make our mark in this century, we need City Hall to turn its full attention to our workforce.

My approach to corporate recruitment and to helping homegrown companies expand will be to build on our strengths. Those include cybersecurity, cloud-computing, health care and biotechnology, the aerospace industry and auto manufacturing.

Students as young as 16 prepare for careers in aerospace at the Alamo Aerospace Academy, part of Alamo Colleges. Since 2001 the program has become an important avenue for young people to kick start their careers with aerospace firms at Kelly Field. Photo courtesy Port San Antonio.
Students as young as 16 prepare for careers in aerospace at the Alamo Aerospace Academy, part of Alamo Colleges. Since 2001 the program has become an important avenue for young people to kick start their careers with aerospace firms at Kelly Field. Photo courtesy Port San Antonio.

Today, the jobs that give us economic security, the kind you can raise a family on, demand more skills and more education. We will need to move quickly to meet this new reality. We have a skills gap to contend with. According to the U.S. Census, 29 percent of our workers have up to two years of post-secondary education. But 44 percent of the jobs that employers need to fill require that degree of education. In other words, we don’t have workers with the education necessary to fill 15 percent of our jobs.

Those are a lot of wages to leave on the table – and a lot of employers who could grow more quickly if they had the talent they needed.

We must adopt a K-14 mindset because a high school diploma is no longer enough. Our skills gap – not enough workers with certificates and associates degrees – demands immediate attention.

We need to update and expand the educational opportunities that helped my parents work their way into the middle class.

My dad was an AC repairman for over 30 years. In addition to working at Lackland Air Force Base, he took on extra work installing and repairing residential heating and cooling systems. My mother put in equally long hours as a nurse. Her second job was running our house. Both were able to attend community college – climbing the first rung of the college ladder – where they learned skills they needed to advance. Their success meant that I could go even higher, becoming the first college graduate in my family, earning an economics degree from Texas A&M University and a master’s from Harvard.

We must connect industry to our education system in ways that we have never before. In the Texas House, I co-authored legislation that gave students a chance to explore careers starting in 8th grade. But that promise will only be realized if we forge strong partnerships with local industry so our teenagers and adults who want to learn new skills can experience, for example, working on jet engines or blocking a cyber attack – first-hand.

Together, the city, educators, and companies will develop training programs for high school students and adults that will be pipelines to some of our community’s best-paying jobs. We have a model in Alamo Academies, which teaches kids skills in five industries, including advanced manufacturing and construction. I want more employers to offer that kind of real-world job experience.

That’s why I will throw my support behind the SA Works initiative, which matches students and employers through internships and apprenticeships. Other exciting developments include CodeHS, a pilot to teach high school students to write computer code, and the Alamo Colleges’ new plan to scale up marketable IT certificates so that high school students graduate key skill desired by most employers.

We also have to help and encourage college-bound kids.

I support expanding the dual credit and AP coursework that give students a head start on college. Research shows students who achieve these milestones in high school perform better than their peers when they graduate and become full-time college students. These teens also reduce their higher-education costs significantly. I will help Alamo Colleges achieve their goal of rapidly expanding the Early College High School model, which allows students to graduate from high school with both a diploma and a two-year college degree – at no additional cost.

Maritza Alvarez and Nancy Vargas are college bound and loving it at Travis Early College High School. Photo by Bekah McNeel.
Maritza Alvarez and Nancy Vargas are college bound and loving it at Travis Early College High School. Photo by Bekah McNeel. Credit: Bekah McNeel / San Antonio Report

Another asset we have to make the most of is our San Antonio Education Partnership. Today, it offers small scholarships to area colleges for many local students with strong academic records. I am eager to dig into that program to ensure we are getting the most out of the investment – so that it is truly a catalyst for our students to successfully finance a college degree.

Our many higher-education assets are crucial to our city’s future. I will help them grow and forge working relationships with industry, the military, and San Antonio’s nonprofits.

On its own, Alamo Colleges serves more than 100,000 students. Our Medical Center has fed our growing bioscience industry. UTSA’s quest to achieve tier-one status, focused on research and development, will support innovation and startups. We are alone among Texas cities to have universities from both the Texas A&M and UT systems. Texas A&M-San Antonio has a unique opportunity to respond nimbly to our local employers’ needs and offer first-hand learning opportunities to complement UTSA’s research focus.

Biomedical engineering graduate student Anand Srinivasan works with cell cultures during his research into high-throughput analysis.
UTSA biomedical engineering graduate student Anand Srinivasan works with cell cultures during his research into high-throughput analysis. Photo by Tim Luukkonen.

All of these initiatives – on-the-job experience for teenagers, helping our college-bound students succeed, and partnering with our colleges and universities – are part of the new approach to job creation that I’ll bring to City Hall.

When we talk about economic development in San Antonio, we often get it backward. We dream about bringing big employers to town – the next Toyota or Medtronic. What we should be doing is developing the kind of workforce that will make San Antonio a natural home for the next Toyota or the next Medtronic, or to make San Antonio the obvious place for those two companies to grow their presence.

Ultimately, having an educated workforce is the best way to grow high-paying jobs. Companies that are here will be able to expand easily because they’ll have the skilled workers they need. Out-of-state companies looking to relocate will know that our community will respond nimbly to their training needs. Graduates with new ideas will choose San Antonio to start businesses because our city will be a laboratory for invention and innovation.

Rackspace is probably our most recognizable homegrown tech company. We have to ask ourselves: What will it take for another Rackspace to emerge?

To answer that question, I will create a Mayor’s Business and Education Roundtable that will connect our educators and employers. Appointees will examine whether we’re graduating enough students with associate’s degrees in targeted occupations and how students can earn college credits in key subject areas or skills while in high school.

Together, we will make San Antonio a city of opportunity. We’ll work to ensure that all of our children can achieve their potential, just as my parents sacrificed so that I could achieve mine. And we will see to it that our children can pursue their dreams in San Antonio.

*Featured/top image: The Tower of Americas and the Alamodome. Photo by Melissa Burnett.

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Mike Villarreal

Mike Villarreal is a former state representative and founding director of the Institute on Urban Education at the University of Texas at San Antonio.