The City of San Antonio is nearing the end of its pandemic-era, $65 million Train for Jobs SA program and preparing to launch the far more ambitious, four-year, $200 million SA: Ready to Work program.

Supporters and skeptics here and in other cities will be watching to see if municipal government can successfully execute a voter-supported initiative that aims to train and put to work as many as 40,000 unemployed and underemployed people living in or near the poverty level.

“I’ve not seen local government attempt anything like this on this scale,” said Mike Ramsey, the city’s recently hired executive director of workforce development. “It’s an ambitious undertaking. The city is funding workforce development with our partner agencies, not undertaking direct programming by our staff.

“We’re blazing a new trail,” Ramsey added. “If we get this right, the rest of the country is going to look at this as something that can be replicated.”

Government-sponsored workforce development programs undertaken since the 1960s do not have a history of success. Retraining and employing people who lack strong education backgrounds, industry-specific skills, and who come from socioeconomically disadvantaged groups is a tall order.

Critics over the years have argued that government should not be in the business of employment and job-training programs. Perhaps no program better exemplified government failure than the 1973 Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, signed by President Richard Nixon one month before his resignation, and later gutted by President Ronald Reagan. The CETA program cost taxpayers $51 billion at the time, equal to about $286 billion in 2021 dollars.

This 2018 article in The Atlantic focuses on the challenges job retraining programs usually fail to overcome.

Yet San Antonio voters delivered a resounding level of support for the SA: Ready to Work program in November 2020 when 77% of voters — one of the highest approval ratings ever for a city ballot proposition — supported the allocation of a one-eighth cent sales tax to fund the effort for the next four years.

City officials are now negotiating with third-party providers to administer the program, and will bring a final plan for approval to City Council in February. Sales taxes began to accumulate in May and are projected to total $200 million over a 4 1/2-year period before the one-eighth cent sales tax moves in year five to VIA Metropolitan Transit.

In a city that a 2019 U.S. census report found had the highest percentage of people living in poverty among the top 25 U.S. cities, that indicates voters strongly support efforts by City Council to tackle poverty and find ways to pull more people out of the low-wage economy.

The question is whether that support and the city’s strategy of unifying and funding third-party entities will prove to be an approach that works.

“The city is not engaging in direct training. It’s operating as a funder, working with job-training entities that have proven records,” Ramsey said. ‘We are leveraging what already exists to make the workforce ecosystem stronger.”

A business savvy advisory board was formed to keep the private sector and higher education leaders engaged in the process.

Alex Lopez, the assistant city manager whose oversight responsibilities include Ramsey’s workforce development office, brings years of economic development experience to the table.

She and Ramsey both defended the results of the city’s current year-long Train for Jobs SA program, which to date has placed 756 unemployed or underemployed people in full-time jobs paying an average of $15 an hour. The city’s current living wage is $15.60 an hour.

Critics point to a previous statement by Mayor Ron Nirenberg predicting that the program would put 10,000 people idled by the pandemic back to work. One city official said that number should have been framed as “aspirational,” especially for a one-year program that was just being organized.

Ramsey said 55% of the Train for Jobs SA graduates are now in full-time employment. Many of the 4,042 individuals enrolled in the training programs will continue into 2022, Ramsey said, and eventually be placed in full-time jobs once their training is completed.

Trainees earn $15 an hour and also benefit from working closely with case officers who offer financial counseling. Program participants are made aware of rent, mortgage, and utility assistance available.

“That has removed a huge barrier for people who otherwise would not have been able to participate in a training program,” Ramsey said.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report, is now a freelance journalist.