Texas Federation for Advanced Manufacturing Education students and their families arrive for the graduation ceremony.
Texas Federation for Advanced Manufacturing Education students and their families arrive for the graduation ceremony. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Two years ago, Madison Wilbur graduated from Providence High School with dreams of studying mass communications in college, but as Wilbur put it, “life happens,” and she was forced to re-evaluate her options.

On Thursday, she became one of the first-ever graduates from Texas Federation for Advanced Manufacturing Education’s (TX FAME), a two-year program that trains students to become advanced manufacturing technicians (AMT).

“It’s been a blessing, it’s the best thing I’ve been able to be a part of,” Wilbur said. “I was able to get hands-on learning, I was able to obtain a degree, I was able to learn skills I didn’t even know I was capable of doing.”

Twenty-five students were presented with their associate’s degrees in the inaugural graduation Thursday at The Veranda in Castle Hills. It was the culmination of spending two days a week in classrooms on St. Philip’s College Southwest Campus and three more days working for their sponsor company and earning a livable wage.

TX FAME is modeled after a Kentucky program that Toyota’s North American organization saw as a way to encourage students to learn while earning wages and developing skills for specific job areas, such as AMTs.

Toyota Texas worked with Bexar County’s economic development department to develop TX FAME with support from St. Phillip’s College.

Officials from H-E-B, CPS Energy, Joyson Safety Systems and other local companies and organizations are active on the TX FAME board of directors, collaborating on everything from developing curriculum to recruiting program candidates.

Cierra Pandazis, a Navarro High School graduate, worked for Toyota Motor Manufacturing Texas. She said the classroom sessions and workdays gave her invaluable real-world experience.

“Being a full-time college student and a part-time maintenance worker was the best thing to brag about,” Pandazis added. “Not only could we deal with the pressures of work but also the pressures of school.”

Pandazis learned skills such as welding and dealing with hydraulic kits. She also fondly recalled interactions with her instructors and classmates.

Fellow program graduate, Jonathan Bravo, worked in H-E-B’s meat-packing department. He had already been working there when the TX FAME program piqued his interest.

“When I heard about the AMT program, I knew very quickly this would be a way for me to establish a strong technical background, challenge me to be a better peer, and help me to grow as a leader,” he added.

County Judge Nelson Wolff praised the new TX FAME graduates, saying the program is helping to prepare specialty skilled workers for specific jobs offered by these and other employers.

But just as important, Wolff added, is that these employers will be able to retain local talent for the long run. Similar skill-development and internship programs such as SA Works have emerged in the last few years.

Wolff said getting paid and earning a degree should make TX FAME even more worthwhile for local students. The program plans to graduate 40 more students in May 2020.

“What’s so incredible about this program is that you all will be headed for a job,” Wolff told the graduates. “You’ll be able to do that job that you’re already doing, but also, if you want to, you can continue your education, as well.”

Leslie Cantu, vice president of administration for Toyotesu Texas and TX FAME board president
Leslie Cantu, the TX FAME board president. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Leslie Cantu, vice president of administration for Toyotetsu Texas, a supply company for Toyota Texas, and the TX FAME board president, called TX FAME a win-win for the private sector and for students. She said it’s especially important for businesses to collaborate and close the industry skills gap in the area.

“A whole generation of skilled technicians [are] retiring and leaving this gap for employers who have an amazing need,” Cantu said. “As things become more automated and technical and as the skill level increases, employers are struggling to find the right candidate.

“Something like this is a great opportunity for students and an amazing benefit for employers. It allows us to offer more jobs, grow our business for years to come. Students come out of school debt-free with an associate’s degree and an amazing opportunity.”

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Edmond Ortiz

Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.