Alamo Aerospace Academy students. Courtesy of Alamo Colleges.
Alamo Aerospace Academy students. Courtesy of Alamo Colleges.
Bekah S. McNeel

Since 2008, the story of workers looking for jobs has become part of the narrative fabric of our media lives. At least if you listened to NPR during the nadir of the recession. But another story runs parallel to this one. The story of jobs unfilled, because the workforce cannot meet the educational and technical requirements of many entry-level jobs.

The majority of these jobs are in the highly skilled, highly specialized fields of advanced manufacturing, information technology, and aerospace. In advanced manufacturing alone, experts estimate that 5% of jobs remain vacant, according to John Dewey of the San Antonio Manufacturers Association.

Manufacturing, IT, and aerospace mean big money for the regions where they are based. Attracting and keeping companies like Boeing, Cessna, Rackspace, and Dell can alter the economic landscape of a city. But those businesses need workers who can do the job.  Providing that training had been an insurmountable hurdle for many companies, so they go where the human capital exists.

In San Antonio, Port San Antonio, Workforce Solutions Alamo, and Alamo Colleges have combined forces to provide that human capital. At an event on May 15 at the St. Phillips College Workforce Center for Excellence, located on the Port San Antonio campus, leaders in this innovative collaborative called for community discussion on their efforts to build a 21st century workforce to attract 21st century industry.

Port SA workforce discussion
From left: Founder/Chief Executive Officer Joseph Kitterman, Workforce Solutions Alamo Executive Director Patrick Newman and Alamo Colleges Vice Chancellor of Economic and Workforce Development Dr. Frederico Zargoza look on as Port San Antonio Board Chair Wayne Alexander describes the technical and manufacturing employment gap in San Antonio. Photo by Bekah McNeel.

Wayne Alexander, chairman of the board for Port San Antonio, expressed the urgency of workforce enrichment.

Alamo Aerospace Academy students. Courtesy of Alamo Colleges.
An Alamo Aerospace Academy student hard at work. Courtesy of Port San Antonio.

“The one thing that will set us apart in this global competition for jobs … is a pipeline of workers,”  Alexander said.

Alamo Colleges is committed to being that pipeline. In addition to moving students into universities, and generally raising the level of education in the communities they serve, community colleges are becoming important elements in the vanguard of workforce development.

Dr. Federico Zaragoza is the Vice Chancellor of Economic and Workforce Development for the Alamo Colleges system. His goal is to address the skill gap between the jobs manufacturers need filled, and the workers available to fill them.

One arm of workforce development is steering new workers into the fields where employment is available by setting them on an early path to success. Currently Alamo Colleges have 21,000 students in the “pipeline” toward the skilled manufacturing, aerospace, and IT job market. They are constantly assessing global standards and ensuring post-graduation employability by helping students attain national industry certifications.

Another arm of workforce development is providing continuing education for “when you want your workforce upgraded,” as Zaragoza said. For this, Alamo Colleges are remarkably flexible to the particular needs of industry partners, providing the kind of advanced training that will keep their workforce in step with the forward pace of innovation.

While many of the new workers are students at Alamo Colleges, where the system can immerse them in industry options and opportunities,  large numbers of the unemployed cannot afford (in money or time) to go back to school. Their situation matches more closely with the second kind of worker, who is in need of an “upgrade.”

For these students, Zaragoza and Alamo Colleges have partnered with Workforce Solutions Alamo to develop a program called Just In Time.

Students and workers at Lockheed Martin’s Kelly Aviation Center at Port San Antonio. Photo  courtesy of Alamo Colleges.
Students and workers at Lockheed Martin’s Kelly Aviation Center at Port San Antonio. Photo courtesy of Port San Antonio.

Just in Time is an accelerated learning program designed to align the needs of industry and the training of the workforce. The inaugural cohort graduated in March of 2013 after a 90 day (plus holidays) training course. Patrick Newman, Executive Director of Workforce Solutions Alamo, lauds the program for demonstrating, “How flexible the community colleges have been to work with industry.”

The industry has its part to play as well.

“If you make the commitment to hire our students, we will customize the curriculum,” said Zaragoza.

Businesses who participate in the Just in Time program commit to at least an initial interview with graduates. But with their certifications and training, this is not a formality. Those interviews often lead to jobs — jobs that businesses are happy to fill with competent, trained workers.

Veronica Garcia of Higuchi Manufacturing currently employs four Just in Time students part-time until they graduate at the end of the month.

Vanessa Garcia
Veronica Garcia of Higuchi Manufacturing hired four students out of the “Just In Time” program – before they were technically graduated. Photo by Bekah McNeel.

“The day after they graduate, I’ve got them full-time,” Garcia said. “I’m having to train people in basic math, and these people already know how to use calipers, how to use blueprints…This is truly a lifesaver for me.”

Currently the Just in Time program is focused on the advanced manufacturing sector and preparing graduates for entry-level jobs. However, as they grow, they are forging partnerships to expand into IT and aerospace. They invite companies to tap into their pipeline of trained workers to make that happen.

As they grow, they will also include that “upgrade” component, for companies who do not have the time to provide the training necessary to promote their workers.

This was exactly what led Joseph Kitterman to found 180 Skills. As a manager in a manufacturing company, he was feeling like a failure.

“I got really good at hiring low-skill workers and promising the moon,” Kitterman said.

But when those workers came to him wanting the training they needed to advance, he did not have the time to give it. A manufacturing plant needs to produce, and taking time to train employees messes with the quotas. Sticking an untrained worker in a new position and waiting for him to catch on can be just as costly.

So Kitterman started 180 Skills, the program that Zaragoza and Newman looked to as they built Just In Time. 180 Skills started in Seattle, where it mobilized a community college to provide web-based accelerated learning to meet the needs of aerospace companies in the area. Kitterman held his breath waiting for employer feedback after his first graduates were hired and promoted.

No complaints. Graduates of the accelerated learning program met and exceeded employer expectations. Two years later, none have been knocked out, and the program has spread to 13 community colleges in five states, including Wichita, home of Cessna and Raytheon.

During a Q&A at the end of the discussion, participants honed in on the need to get high school students involved. Gene Bowman of Alamo Academies was on hand to explain outreach to high school kids, and Ray Chavez of San Antonio Manufacturers Association explained their efforts at recruiting as young as junior high.

The future could be even brighter. Kids get their ideas of what is possible and attainable from looking around them. Steve Jobs grew up in Silicon Valley. San Antonio is seeking to become an industry town where the human capital is so skill-rich that companies are moving into town left and right. Which would mean that kids in San Antonio would be exposed early to aerospace, IT, and manufacturing, and would have the familiarity to become the innovators of tomorrow. With programs like this, it could happen, couldn’t it?

Bekah is a native San Antonian. She went away to Los Angeles for undergrad before earning her MSc in Media and Communication from the London School of Economics. She made it back home and now works for Ker and Downey. She is one of the founding members of Read the Change, a web-based philanthropy and frequent contributor to the Rivard Report. You can also find her at her blog, Free Bekah.

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Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog,, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.