If Proposition B is approved by San Antonio voters next week, a one-eighth-cent sales tax will be aimed at securing job training programs, scholarships, and emergency financial assistance for up to 40,000 residents in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

Despite broad support from education, community, and business leaders, some have criticized the SA Ready to Work initiative as half-baked because program details aren’t finalized. Others question its benefit to the broader community.

City officials don’t plan on reinventing the wheel when it comes to workforce development because nationally recognized programs are already established in San Antonio. The tax revenue, estimated at $154 million over four years, will be invested in residents who sign up for several on-the-job training and certificate programs as well as scholarships with local colleges for two- and four-year degrees.

Each year, an estimated $10 million will be set aside for services such as child care and counseling as well as $2.5 million for emergency stipends for rent, car repairs, or utility bills, according to a preliminary budget.

“We’re going to use an existing fraction of our sales tax to train and educate tens of thousands of our neighbors for future-proof careers with existing, proven local programs,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg told the San Antonio Report this week, including Project Quest and Alamo Colleges District. “Proposition B is a large-scale investment in our people, not a policy overhaul. We’re not looking for a new way to train or educate people, and we didn’t have to start from scratch.”

While Nirenberg has been the de facto face of the program, it was originally initiated by a team of local business, nonprofit, and higher education leaders he appointed to explore strategies for long-term recovery.

Click here to view a preliminary plan overview prepared by the City’s Economic Development Department. The Ready to Work SA initiative will focus efforts on enrolling low-income, displaced workers with a high school diploma or some college credit in programs that will train them to work in fields that need skilled workers such as manufacturing, aerospace, bioscience and healthcare, technology and cybersecurity, construction, and other trades.

City officials have said program details, such as contracts with training nonprofits and universities, will be finalized if voters approve Prop B.

More than 235,000 local workers have filed for unemployment since the coronavirus pandemic shut down the economy in mid-March. Many jobs won’t return for years – 20 percent will never come back, economists have said. While San Antonio’s unemployment rate was low pre-pandemic, it led the top 25 most populous cities in poverty (alongside Miami) in 2019.

Census data shows that the more education or training a person gets, the more likely they are to earn higher wages, said Alejandra Lopez, director of the City’s Economic Development Department. “San Antonians have relatively low educational attainment.”

A head start

The City has already dedicated $75 million in federal relief towards workforce development as part of its response to the more immediate needs during the pandemic. In just a few months, it established a collaborative network among seven training, education, and other service providers including Alamo Colleges District, Chrysalis Ministries, Project Quest, Family Service Association, Restore Education, Workforce Solutions Alamo, and SA Works. The one-year program aims to serve up to 10,000 residents.

Since September, the Train for Jobs SA initiative has enlisted nearly 1,400 participants who have completed the intake process. Nearly 1,000 have been referred to a training partner, and 244 have enrolled as of last week.

If approved, Prop B would expand these operations to include support for two- and four-year degrees.

“What we’re doing now is setting a foundation,” Lopez said. “There’s a lot of lessons learned and things we’ll be able to iterate and really make sure that any future program, should it be approved by voters, really is informed by a lot of work that we’re doing now.”

Alejandra Lopez, director of the Economic Development Department for the City of San Antonio. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

When the program started, Workforce Solutions Alamo was handling the referral process for the entire system. But the nonprofit wasn’t prepared to handle the volume of calls and inquiries it received.

That referral system has now been decentralized so anyone can apply through any of the partner organizations, Lopez said. “They can even call 3-1-1,” the City’s information line. 

“All of the partners have shown creativity and nimbleness to address things as they come up,” she said. “I don’t want to say [the system is] finalized; we’re going to probably keep enhancing it.”

She expects sustained nimbleness will be required throughout Train for Jobs and the longer Ready to Work initiatives to make sure students are getting trained for high-demand jobs.

As the economy begins to recover, officials will keep a close eye on industry shifts, Lopez said. “We’re going to have to make sure that we don’t fall behind on that.”

The leaders of several major employers – USAA, H-E-B, Toyota, and Rackspace – have committed to prioritize students from the program when they apply.

Project Quest: ‘Workforce development is a public good’

The education gap between jobs available in San Antonio and skilled, local workers is nothing new, but the coronavirus pandemic has further exposed the need for post-high-school education, said Sister Pearl Ceasar, who was a lead organizer of COPS/Metro Alliance when it founded Project Quest in 1992.

Organizers were spurred to action when more than 1,000 workers lost their jobs in 1990 as blue jean company Levi Strauss & Co. closed its plant in San Antonio.

“Overnight, 1,000 people lost their jobs. What it showed was how the economy was changing … jobs that were available to people that did not have any type of education beyond high school were gone,” Ceasar said. “The myths of the time were there are no jobs or … people didn’t want the higher-wage jobs that existed.”

They wanted them, but they couldn’t afford the education required to get them, she said. So employers were importing workers from outside the region, leaving locals to take low-wage positions.

“The adult learner has a family and other financial obligations” that prevent them from attending courses beyond the price of admission, she said.

Executive Director of Project Quest Sister Pearl Ceasar gives remarks at the newly opened Open Cloud Academy. Photo by Scott Ball.
Sister Pearl Ceasar, former executive director of Project Quest and a lead organizer for COPS/Metro Alliance. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Project Quest has served more than 7,000 individuals. A study by Economic Mobility Corporation found that participants’ annual earnings grew from an average of $11,722 to $33,644 over nine years.

Workforce development initiatives produce “a personal ROI [return on investment] for the student but [also] a community and neighborhood ROI for all of us,” said Mike Flores, chancellor of the Alamo Colleges District.

An economic impact report estimating the long-term regional gains is currently being finalized, a spokesman for Nirenberg said this week.

The mayor has said that report will detail that every dollar spent on the program will yield $85 while costing the average resident $8.62 per year.

A key component of Project Quest’s model is the financial support offered outside the classroom for childcare, transportation, utility bills, and other needs. It’s also a key component in Ready to Work SA.

Too often, potential students have to make a “binary choice between pursuing a credential or meeting family demands,” Flores said. “We don’t want it to be a binary choice.”

Train for Jobs provides students with a stipend for up to $450 per week while receiving training. Ready to Work will help students with expenses on a case-by-case basis for emergencies.

But that isn’t enough to help the city’s most vulnerable residents, Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) has said.

The average participant in Project Quest’s programming requires more than $10,000 in training fees and other support combined, Treviño noted during a recent Prop B debate. Ready to Work would use $3,850 per student on average.

Some students will need more assistance than others, Nirenberg said. “The influx of resources will yield an economies-of-scale advantage, allowing vendors to drive down the cost per participant – efficiently and effectively preparing our community for the post-pandemic economy.”

Both Treviño and Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) voted against putting the workforce development initiative on the November ballot. Among their concerns was that aquifer protection and trail development would no longer be funded by the tax.

Since 2010, San Antonio voters have overwhelmingly opted to protect the Edwards Aquifer and build Howard W. Peak Greenway Trails with the sales tax.

The City will pick up aquifer protection as part of its annual budget, and Bexar County has pledged to fund trails.

That funding isn’t guaranteed, Treviño said. “Those are just promises.”

Disclosure: SA Ready to Work has purchased advertising through the San Antonio Report.

Iris Dimmick

Iris Dimmick

Senior reporter Iris Dimmick covers City Hall, politics, development, and more. Contact her at iris@sareport.org