San Antonio’s new jobs training and placement program officially launched Monday, opening enrollment to what city leaders hope will help thousands of residents develop lifelong career skills that should immediately lead to good-paying jobs.

SA Ready to Work, a $230 million five-year program that appears to be growing to match rising funding estimates, has been cast by advocates as a monumental anti-poverty effort in the wake of the pandemic’s economic shocks that could serve as a role model for cities across the country.

“If there is a room like this in every city in America, we’ve only just begun,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg said at City Hall before a packed audience of local business and civic leaders.

He predicted the program would change the trajectory of thousands of working families, but added, “I would consider it a success when a single family is able to change the cycle of poverty, and give their children and grandchildren a chance.”

Already, however, anticipated training and placement numbers for the program have dropped since February, when council approved contracts for the program. At that time, staffers said they expected the program to attract nearly 40,000 applicants, train 36,000, and ultimately place around 28,000 in jobs.

While officials said they still expect that many applicants, more recent estimates show 28,000 could be trained and 15,600 placed in jobs by the end of the five-year timeframe.

The reduced projection echoes SA Ready to Work’s predecessor program, Train for Jobs SA, which fell far short of its goals. Launched in the early months of the pandemic, Train for Jobs SA sought to help up to 10,000 residents find jobs, though only about 1,600 have so far.

Michael Ramsey, executive director of the city’s Workforce Development Office, who was hired nearly a year after Train for Jobs SA’s launch in September 2020 has said the new program took many lessons from its predecessor, such as increased outreach, working with employers and focusing on long-term training.

San Antonio voters overwhelmingly approved a broad outline of SA Ready to Work and a sales tax to fund it in November 2020, with more than three-quarters of voters’ approval. SA Ready to Work intends to enroll thousands of local residents into a pipeline that will take them from training or education directly into a high-paying job from cooperating employers in select industries.

Throughout the process, applicants will receive individualized support, potentially including 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.

As of now, the program will fund up to $500 of such expenses, though City Council will vote on Thursday whether to approve a higher cap of $1,500. Community partners and some council members urged the change, which has been enabled by higher-than-expected revenue from the sales tax.

Amanda Wright, who joined the program’s advisory board last month, said she is proof that programs like this can work.

Wright went through SA Ready to Work’s predecessor program, Train for Jobs SA, where she gained certifications in accounting software that she says got her an accounting job at Winco of South Texas, a window cleaning company.

It was a dramatic turnaround for the mother of four, who with her family became homeless in 2019, a trajectory she described with a cracking voice. Not only did the stipend offered by Train for Jobs SA stabilize her life, she said, but the training it provided has allowed for a career that gives her the flexibility to handle personal responsibilities, such as her children’s extracurriculars and doctor’s visits.

“My goal on the board is to bring a different perspective, one that’s been through the trenches,” she said. “I’m not afraid to voice my opinion.”

Outreach to potential applicants is continuing, and the city has approved contracts that will pump out ads on television and over radio.

COPS/Metro — a grassroots coalition of congregations, schools and unions that has long advocated for anti-poverty measures and campaigned aggressively for the program’s approval — plans to host around 500 house meetings to encourage residents to enroll in the program. Some have already occurred, said Isaiah Banta, an organizer with the group.

Ramsey said more than 800 have pre-registered for SA Ready to Work so far.

Mike Ramsey, executive director of Ready to Work, an education and job placement program funded by tax payers.
Mike Ramsey, executive director of the city’s Workforce Development Office, which will oversee the newly-launched SA Ready to Work, a taxpayer-funded education and job placement program. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Residents can apply for the program by calling 3-1-1 or enrolling online. They can also go in-person to the offices of Restore Education, Project Quest, Workforce Solutions Alamo, or Alamo Colleges District.

The process to enroll has been made “as easy as possible,” said Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8), one of the council’s two liaisons to the program. “What will the cost be to those who want to participate? Nothing except sweat.”

Restore Education and Project Quest, alongside the Alamo Colleges District and Workforce Solutions Alamo, will be responsible for signing up and sorting applicants, connecting them to training and education programs, providing coaching and financial counseling, distributing emergency funds for applicants’ sudden expenses, and placing them in approved jobs.

The City of San Antonio’s role in the program is to oversee these and other related contracts, and to fund them.

Applicants must be 18 years of age, permitted to work in the United States, a resident of San Antonio, not currently enrolled in college courses, and must not have a household income exceeding 250% of federal poverty guidelines, which are regularly updated.

Close to 200 local employers have agreed to participate in the program, providing feedback as to what jobs are in-demand and agreeing to hire program participants for jobs that pay more than $15 an hour at the minimum. Most of these jobs will pay more than that, Ramsey said.

Participating employers include H-E-B, Frost Bank, Holt Cat, Navistar and Methodist Healthcare System.

There are no legally binding restrictions on the employers that want to participate in the program.

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Waylon Cunningham

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