San Antonio employers say they want a labor pool with more skills and more experience. Local workforce development leaders see a solution in apprenticeships.

The City of San Antonio sought and won nearly $3 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Labor to go toward efforts to boost apprenticeship programs, the city announced this week.

The money will pay for city staff to help walk employers through the process of expanding existing apprenticeships, and creating new ones in sectors that haven’t traditionally used apprenticeships, like tech and education.

It also will do the same for so-called “pre-apprenticeship” positions, which are sometimes offered before government-registered apprenticeship programs.

The money will also drive outreach to populations underrepresented in apprenticeship programs, and who the federal government is aiming to boost enrollment for, such as women, people of color and people with disabilities.

The funding could also provide a financial cushion for apprentices, though the implementation of that hasn’t been worked out yet.

Administering the grant is the city’s new Workforce Development Office, which was created to oversee the city’s $230 million workforce development program, Ready to Work. That program aims to enroll thousands of local low-wage workers into a training and education pipeline toward in-demand careers.

“Apprenticeships are the oldest form of workforce development in the world,” the office’s executive director Michael Ramsey said. “This is going to help supplement Ready to Work tremendously.”

Apprenticeships would help participants of Ready to Work, the city’s workforce program, who want a source of income while they train.

Unlike its predecessor workforce program, Ready to Work does not offer a stipend to participants. It does, however, provide up to $1,500 in emergency funding to cover expenses such as housing, utilities, day care, food, transportation, internet access or other last-minute expenses with the potential to derail a person’s progress in the program.

Ready to Work opened in May and has attracted around 3,800 applicants so far, Ramsey said.

Local leaders in workforce development say apprenticeships would be good for employers, too.

“Apprenticeships are a really critical missing piece,” said Romanita Matta-Barrera, chief workforce officer at SA Worx, the workforce development wing of Greater:SATX. She said many employers want to offer on-the-job training, but funding wasn’t provided through Ready to Work. This grant is the city’s way of leveraging outside funding, she said.

Before the Department of Labor approved its grant to the city, SA Worx wrote a letter in support of it.

Many of the industries targeted by Ready to Work have employers who say there isn’t enough skilled labor for the positions they need.

SA Worx recently released its quarterly report looking at the hiring landscape in select industries. In the second quarter of 2022, the healthcare sector saw 1,500 postings a month on average looking for registered nurses, but hired only a third of that. In the tech sector, there were on average 600 postings a month for software developers, but employers hired less than half of that.

There’s been a growing recognition among distant fields that apprenticeships could offer at least a partial solution.

Matta-Barrera said apprenticeships aren’t yet common in the city, but efforts are growing. For instance, she said Alamo Colleges has sought to grow apprenticeships in cybersecurity. But for now, she said, employers in the skilled trades, like plumbing and electricians, and in manufacturing remain ahead of the curve.

Bill Cox, president of Cox Manufacturing, which produces specialized screws, said his company has offered official apprenticeships for 12 years. Without them, “we couldn’t have grown at the pace we did,” he said. Cox won recognition as one of the country’s fastest-growing companies for several years in a row in the early 2010s.

Still, he said he’s one of the few local manufacturers to offer them. And even when he goes to national manufacturer conventions, “I’m the odd one out.”

Some companies are hesitant to make the investment, he said. Others with fledgling programs will redirect resources in times of high demand.

Cox said he thinks more companies should develop their own apprenticeships, even in sectors that don’t traditionally offer them.

“We need more of them,” he said. “It’s a no-brainer.”

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