Developing and attracting a cutting-edge workforce is San Antonio’s biggest challenge, a concern shared among economists and business leaders across Texas.

On Tuesday, the Bexar County Commissioner’s Court listened to the latest details on workforce initiatives. The County’s strategy focuses on identifying key industry sector needs for skilled labor and aligning County programs and resources to meet those needs.

In Bexar County, 25% of adults are over 25 years old and have earned some college credit but no degree. Targeting workforce development in certain scarce job skills, such as robotics training, is intended to help drive economic development.

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff saw the value in identifying jobs that local businesses have the most difficulty in filling, because an inability to fill crucial positions impedes local economic growth.

“This process must focus on training as well as recruiting,” Wolff said.

In its efforts to match local employers with gaps in labor skill sets with county residents seeking better-paying jobs, County Manager David Smith realized a strategic realignment of Bexar County’s resources was needed.

Recognizing that community needs should be planned in concert with efforts to support local economic development, Bexar County has combined departments for economic and community development needs. Executive Director David Marquez will oversee both programs under Jordana Decamps, director of economic development, and Eddie Ortega, director of community development.

The Rivard Report discussed ongoing workforce and economic development efforts for Bexar County with Marquez and Decamps last week.

Marquez explained that economic development typically focuses on improving a community’s quality of life by creating or retaining jobs and supporting resident incomes with better-paying jobs. Bexar County’s emphasis has shifted dramatically over the past 18 months, he said.

“We’re now focusing on three areas to drive economic development,” Marquez said. “Workforce development, innovation – primarily in the digital space – and the integration of public-facing initiatives with workforce development programs.”

The Bexar County Commissioners Court on Tuesday, February 7th.
The Bexar County Commissioners Court on Tuesday. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The County has been actively working to recruit and retain technology companies in Bexar County. Over the past year, for example, the Bexar County economic development center has represented the county in Workforce Solutions Alamo, a collaborative board that serves as the governing body for the regional workforce system, a network of service providers and contractors linking people with jobs.

Bexar County has also used its Innovation Fund to accelerate the growth of the innovation-focused digital information technology sector within Bexar County.

“Before the Innovation Fund, all we had to offer [tech startups] was tax abatements, but these tech companies are not buying buildings,” Marquez said. “For a pretty modest amount of money, we can do a lot to encourage companies in ways we can really help them.”

The last focus integrates traditional approaches to workforce development – like career development programs at Alamo Academies, for example – with county-run community programs providing residents with needed social services.

“I want to find a way to simultaneously promote opportunities to connect those seeking social services and capture them into programs targeted for workforce development,” Marquez said.

In economic  development the customer is the local business,” Decamps added. “We want to retain these (local businesses) and help them grow.”

This focus on local business needs reflects the recent shift in the County’s strategy.

“Despite programs for veterans and others looking for jobs, as well as programs offering public assistance and social services, we still have serious workforce gaps,” Marquez said. “Because of the big gap in supply and demand, we’ve decided to integrate public-facing programs into ongoing workforce development efforts.

“My charge is to get more return for the same investment,” he said.

“We went on a listening tour to talk to local companies,” Decamps said. “And they told us, ‘Here are the exact skill sets we are looking for—robotics technician, cybersecurity, and IT.’”

Companies need cybersecurity to safeguard digital company assets. Skilled IT professionals are also needed to keep data systems running across all industries.

The one scarce job skill the County has decided to focus on first is on robotics technicians who build, maintain, test, and repair robotics, or who work with robotics-related automated production systems. Job applicants usually need a strong background in hardware, electronics, and circuitry to keep advanced manufacturing and supply chain operations running with little down time.

Take a tour of the Toyota plant in San Antonio and you’ll see many different types of robots in use on the production line.

Marquez and Decamps nodded in unison as Marquez talked about what they discovered during their listening tour.

Robotics are used not only in automotive production, but they also help workers stock warehouses in supply chain operations for companies such as HEB and Amazon. Advanced manufacturing practices have incorporated robotics in diverse industries from aerospace to consumer goods.

The Bexar County economic and community development department has launched its workforce initiative by first focusing on meeting local advanced manufacturing labor needs for robotics technicians.

“We’re working with five major employers to solve their demand for robot technicians,” Decamps said. “We’re working with CPS Energy, HEB, Toyota Texas, the Toyota onsite supplier Toyotetsu Texas, and TK Holdings [Takata].”

“The key for success is to stay tightly focused, as the programs we are running are centered on building economic development for advanced manufacturing,” Marquez said. “Our ability to attract and recruit companies here will be hampered by the lack of skilled workforce to fill these jobs.”

It’s a different private sector-led approach to addressing workforce development, by focusing on the demand for labor from companies based here or moving to Bexar County. Marquez, Decamps, and Ortega are adapting Toyota’s approach of continuous improvement by first identifying root causes – the need for scarce skill sets – and then focusing on refining improvements in their strategy to meet one scarce skill first, before using the approach on other local labor needs.

“This alignment is not your typical economy development strategy, but it enables us to give people informed information on how to fill a local need for skilled talent,” Marquez said. “It’s constraint theory. We’re focused on what is constraining economic growth in the county.”

The Toyota AMT (Advanced Manufacturing Technician) program at Alamo Colleges has been expanded to include four additional companies and has doubled to 40 the number of students accepted each fall at St. Philips College Southwest Campus. The program is now called TX FAME (Texas Federation for Advanced Manufacturing Education) AMT program. Students must apply to St. Philips College as well as for a sponsorship with one of the five participating companies.

The County’s goal is to produce graduates who are both college- and career-ready, with a job lined up from one of the sponsoring companies.

“We’ve identified the one pain point [robotics technicians] as a way to start, so we can focus resources on that,” Marquez added.

With salaries ranging anywhere from $30,000 to $67,00 for entry-level robotics technicians, the benefits from this new approach can benefit both local employers and workers looking for better-paying jobs.

And after proving this strategy works to increase the robotic technician talent pipeline, Bexar County will turn its attention to developing other scarce job skills locally, with private sector partners in the lead.

Iris Gonzalez writes about technology, life science and veteran affairs.