When Dyvontrae Johnson first heard about Train for Jobs SA, which pays residents while they get job training and education, he had a tough decision to make.
A single father of two and facing possible eviction, Johnson had just been offered a decent contract job installing fiber optic cable. But if he could get a certification in information technology, maybe he could start working as a full-time employee with health care benefits somewhere. Maybe he could move up the ranks and start saving money for his family.
“I know, this [fiber job] is a bird in hand, but these two in the bush are looking really, really strong,” Johnson, 31, told the San Antonio Report. He already knows a lot of IT fundamentals from his previous jobs, but having that certification would open more doors. “That piece of paper … will get me in the room with people.”
He chose the birds in the bush, starting an accelerated, online course at Alamo Colleges District for CompTIA certification, one of the highest credentials for associate-level IT professionals, in October.
Johnson is one of hundreds of students taking courses at Alamo Colleges or with other job training partners as part of the $65 million Train for Jobs SA program, which closes to new applicants Friday. The program, federally funded, was established last year as part of the city’s plan to immediately help residents — and the local economy — recover amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The $200 million SA Ready to Work program, funded through a 1/8-cent sales tax, will take over early next year. City Council is slated to approve contracts with providers in mid-February and students could start courses as soon as March, officials said. In the meantime, students will be put on a waiting list for Ready to Work.
There are two key differences between the two programs. Ready to Work will not provide students with stipends, up to $450 per week, as Train for Jobs does. And unlike Train for Jobs, the new program will have an income cap: People earning more than $32,000 a year (roughly $15 per hour) aren’t eligible.
But for many students, including Johnson, the stipend was what attracted them to apply.
Jonathan Gonzalez, 26, enrolled in the same IT course.
“It’s such a rare opportunity that the pandemic afforded me to not only attend class but to receive a stipend,” Gonzalez said. “That still blows my mind a little bit.”
Before the pandemic, Gonzalez was working in customer service for TaskUs, a digital outsourcing company. He wanted to work in the company’s IT department but needed training, so he started courses at Bibliotech. When the pandemic hit, those courses stopped and he was furloughed. He moved in with his father, who was having medical issues.
He’s working part time with a landscaping company while attending classes. The accelerated pace and stipends are well-suited for him, Gonzalez said.
“I don’t have any huge bills,” he said. “I have my car insurance, I have my cellphone, and then I got, like, two credit cards that I pay down. And I’m good after that.”
For the first two weeks, students weren’t paid, but Gonzalez said he was notified and prepared for that. “I was always thinking of the stipend as a small, supplemental income.”
But for Johnson, with growing rental debt and two children to care for, that two-week delay — which he said grew to three — was a gut punch. Johnson had to find child care in order to work between classes and homework.
He also said he missed the “fine print” that said stipends would be “up to” $450 per week. He typically receives $360. This income led to him being denied food stamp benefits, an issue that his caseworker is working on, he said.
“I had a plan six months in advance to know what I was going to try and get my kids for the holidays,” Johnson said. He found the coursework easy, but the delayed payments meant “we’re too broke to celebrate anything.”
Stipends, paid through the agency where the student is taking courses, are based on the hours they’re in class and instructor-estimated homework time, said Xavier Urrutia, interim vice chancellor of economic and workforce development at Alamo Colleges. They receive $15 per hour.
Urrutia said the district is working on creating an acknowledgment form that explains the stipend delay and other elements of the courses. It’s also collecting feedback to see if it should offer students options when it comes to class pacing.
One “critical” lesson learned early on in the Train for Jobs program is that having students carefully consider their course and career options is worthwhile, Urrutia said.
“Stop, take a breath [and] look at … where you see yourself in the future,” he said. “We saw a lot of people wanting to go into IT because they just thought IT is where to go.”
Having no stipend under Ready to Work may dampen interest from San Antonians who are unemployed or are looking to quit low-paying jobs to enroll, said Mike Ramsey, director of the city’s Workforce Development Department. But the new program will provide up to $1,500 in emergency funding for rent and car repairs or other one-time costs.
Meanwhile, the Alamo Area Community Network, a system of community-based service organizations, will be used to connect students with social care services, Ramsey said.
“Our Ready to Work contracting agencies will be a part of that network and add to it,” he said. “The whole point is to make sure that we’re using utilizing the resources that are already available within our community, including the resources available from the City of San Antonio itself, which has a plethora of programs to help people who may be finding themselves in financial trouble.”
That includes rent and utility assistance, home repair and child care.
“The biggest misconceptions that people have [about Train for Jobs] is that the city is doing the training, the city is doing the case management [and] the city is issuing the stipends,” Ramsey said. But actually, “the city is just the funder” that contracts with providers like Alamo Colleges.
The infusion of funding has created better coordination between the city and workforce development agencies, he said. “I think one of the great benefits of Train for Jobs and Ready to Work is how it’s going to improve our workforce development ecosystem as a whole.”
While Train for Jobs got off to a slow start in summer 2020 and was extended through 2021, Ready to Work will build off of the improved workforce development ecosystem, Ramsey said.
“Train for Jobs was done very quickly — we were in the middle of a pandemic, we needed to help people right now,” he said. “For Ready to Work, we have a pledge … from [dozens of employers] to support, hire from and inform the Ready to Work program so we can make sure that the training that these [people] are going through is aligned to a job that’s going to be waiting for them at the end of that program.”
Train for Job’s goal was to place 10,000 trainees into new, higher-wage jobs. As of mid-December, more 9,500 people have completed preliminary intake for the program and 4,433 are currently in training. Of those who have graduated, 929 are looking for work and 888 have found jobs.
“There’s thousands of people that are waiting to start their classes still,” Ramsey said. “Those are going to run through the entirety of 2022 and some even into 2023. … Train for Jobs is going to be around awhile.”
Ready to Work aims to train and put to work as many as 40,000 people. Sales taxes for that program began to accumulate in May and will continue over a 4½-year period. City officials are negotiating contracts with third-party providers to implement the program. A final plan is expected to go before City Council for a vote in February.
Another difference between the two workforce development programs is that four-year degrees are eligible under Ready to Work. Train for Jobs was targeted at shorter programs.
“There’s a huge segment of the population that has some college [education] but for some reason, life happened and they fell short,” Ramsey said. “So those individuals will have an opportunity to finish that degree program through the Ready to Work initiative.”
Johnson said he regrets going through the Train for Jobs program.
“I should have taken the [fiber] job,” studied on his own online and taken the certification tests on his own, he said.
However, he plans on completing the course at Alamo Colleges, which ends in March.
“People voted with confidence that a bunch of people with money and suits were going to come and actually, really give a crap about people like me,” Johnson said of the November 2020 election, when voters overwhelmingly approved the sales tax for Ready to Work. “Here I am about to potentially be out of a home.”
Gonzalez acknowledges that some students in his cohort are struggling, but he’s happy with the program overall.
“Before this, some mornings I’d wake up or go to bed and find myself with like this existential worry, like: ‘What am I going to do with myself?'” he said. “Now that I’m taking these courses, I don’t feel that. And I’m really, really grateful.”