Unemployment numbers spiked when the coronavirus pandemic forced local businesses to close, and when the economy restarts jobs that existed before may not return, panelists said Wednesday evening during an hourlong discussion on the future of the local workforce.

In the discussion, economic and education experts talked about how San Antonio must respond to the economic downturn and sharp increase in unemployment numbers.

Officials from Workforce Solutions Alamo, Education Service Center Region 20, SA Works, and the University of Texas at San Antonio spoke with Rivard Report Managing Editor Graham Watson-Ringo, who moderated the virtual event.

Here are seven takeaways from the panel discussion:

From when the coronavirus first began spreading locally until now, unemployment numbers increased significantly.

In the last week of February, there were about 760 unemployment claims in the area, said Adrian Lopez, the CEO of Workforce Solutions Alamo, a regional workforce system that tries to connect people with job opportunities. The following week, unemployment claims inched up and in subsequent weeks, records were set for the number of claims filed.

Today there are close to 180,000 unemployment claims in the region, he said. Those unemployed span socioeconomic and educational attainment levels.

“It’s like nothing we have ever seen before,” Lopez said, noting that the number of claims don’t paint the whole picture. There could be many more unemployed who have not filed for unemployment benefits.

It’s hard to get a complete idea of how many people are without jobs. Employers who lay off or furlough 50 or more employees must provide a notice to the state and local jurisdictions, but the majority of San Antonio businesses are small, employing less than 50 people.

“We have no real pulse as to how many actual businesses have been affected by this and how many have actually shut down,” Lopez said.

Not all jobs that existed before the global pandemic will return.

The most impacted industries will be hospitality, food, and accommodations, said Romanita Matta-Barrera, the executive director of SA Works, an organization that helps align education with employment opportunities.

“They are in the social-gathering business,” Matta-Barrera said. “I think they have the most abundant uncertain variables that they will have to tackle, but we will also help them along the way however we can.”

Based on feedback from hospitality and restaurant associations, Lopez estimated that 25 to 30 percent of people employed in those industries will be without jobs after the global pandemic.

Thomas Tunstall, the director of research at UTSA’s Institute for Economic Development, added sporting venues, concerts, and theaters as businesses likely to be significantly impacted by the economic downturn.

Not all industries will be dramatically impacted, however.

Panelists expressed that some industries have weathered the economic downturn well.

Acknowledging that it would take a crystal ball to know which industries will be the quickest to recover, Matta-Barrera projected that the resiliency seen in the manufacturing sector bodes well for jobs.

San Antonio has a diverse economy even within the manufacturing industry with jobs in the aerospace industry and food manufacturing. Both of these will be critical moving forward, she said.

Those searching for employment will find a competitive job market.

There are about 11,000 existing job postings for the San Antonio region and 170,000 people unemployed, Lopez said.

“The market to compete to secure the next job is going to be extremely competitive as we move forward,” Lopez said, stressing that people whose jobs are being eliminated and not just put on pause should look for opportunities to learn new skills or trades.

Existing job postings show opportunities for employment in health care, information technology, and customer service.

New systems must be built and existing systems must be bolstered to match out-of-work people with job opportunities.

Matta-Barrera emphasized the need for workforce structures to be built so unemployed people could be matched with jobs. She recommended case management systems where each individual’s existing skills could be assessed and opportunities for new education programs could be recommended.

Recalling a recent conversation with a family member who was graduating from college with a business degree, Jeff Goldhorn advocated for master’s programs that could train students on burgeoning industries of the future. Goldhorn is the executive director of Education Service Center, Region 20, a center that supports public school systems in San Antonio and the surrounding area with resources and training.

“Thinking about the job market of the future and looking at all the master’s programs at UTSA that are technology-connected, there will be so many opportunities in that job market for the foreseeable future, now more so than ever,” Goldhorn said.

UTSA does offer free courses that help train people on customer service, effective communication, and small business marketing, Tunstall said. The area’s largest university also offers discounted courses that are normally reserved for graduate students but include topics like project management, supply chain management, health care, and database development.

“This is something that UTSA has rolled out relatively quickly in response to the upheaval associated with COVID-19,” Tunstall said.

Students graduating from high school and college will face different career prospects than before. Education leaders don’t have time to address that just yet.

Prior to the pandemic, the Texas Education Agency, Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, and Texas Workforce Commission were working together to achieve a goal: having 60 percent of Texans aged 25 to 34 earning a postsecondary credential by 2030.

Goldhorn suggested this timeline may have to be reexamined in light of the new coronavirus and its upheaval, but said he believed it is still the right path.

“Working with superintendents every day on responding to the pandemic, this is not on top of mind right now,” he said. “I know it will be eventually. I know we are figuring out how to graduate kids and how to do summer school virtually with 5-year-olds and how to reopen schools in the fall.”

Superintendents will likely be ready to devote more attention to this issue in the fall, Goldhorn said. The discussion will likely focus on identifying critical industries and where to focus efforts for the best outcomes.

Failing to pivot on workforce development and identify new industries and education opportunities would be a mistake, experts said.

The data and projections Lopez was using weeks ago is no longer valid today. What is true today is no longer going to be true in 30 or 45 days, he said.

Coronavirus has forced workforce stakeholders to quickly retool their training programs and identify solutions for new problems.

“The last thing we want to see is a very tragic thing that happened in some communities like Detroit and others that as they were losing manufacturing, they couldn’t figure out how to respond to that or pivot to other types of industries,” Lopez said. “Our responsibility here is to be able to continuously work with industry on how to make sure we are providing real opportunities for folks to be able to land a job.”

Wednesday’s event was the second in a three-part series of education-focused virtual events. The final event will take place next Wednesday, May 27, and focus on public education for grades pre-kindergarten through high school.

Rivard Report Editor and Publisher Robert Rivard will moderate “PK-12 After the Shutdown: Assessing the Damage, Looking Ahead.” The event will take place on May 27 from 5 p.m. to 6:15 p.m. and feature SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez, Pre-K 4 SA CEO Sarah Baray, Northside ISD Superintendent Brian Woods, East Central ISD Superintendent Roland Toscano, and Raise Your Hand Texas Director of Policy Bob Popinski.

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Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.