After several months of lackluster enrollment, a pandemic-era program aimed at helping low-income San Antonians find living-wage jobs saw a slight uptick in applications this spring, officials said last week.

“We knew eventually we would see this increase; it just took a little bit of time,” said Assistant City Manager Alex Lopez, who oversees the Train for Jobs SA program.

The one-year, $75 million program funded by federal coronavirus relief money is expected to conclude in September, but Lopez has spoken with partner organizations about a possible extension that could increase the overlap with the taxpayer-funded SA Ready to Work program that is slated to start in October or November, slightly behind schedule.

“Participants that are enrolled as of the end of September can still be served until they complete their training,” Lopez told the SA Ready to Work Advisory Board on Thursday. “The conversation we have started with all of our Train for Jobs partners is ‘What would an extension look like … and what resources would you need in order to keep your operations moving through the end of the year?’”

The program, which began last September, was intended to train up to 10,000 people but has enrolled only about 6,000 to date.

“Anybody who is interested can still sign up for the program,” Lopez said. An extension of the program would mean people could sign up for Train for Jobs after September.

The actual number of spots available for participants and how quickly residents complete training depends on what kind of training residents choose, Lopez told reporters on Wednesday.

That makes current availability of spots in the program hard to quantify, Lopez said.

As of this week, about 344,000 Texans will no longer receive the additional $300 weekly federal unemployment benefit. Officials said that may lead to an increase in enrollment for the Train for Jobs program.

“For many, this is the time to consider their career path,” Nirenberg said. “Training for a new career is the best way for many workers to build a better future. Enrollment in the program has been accelerating.”

About 600 participants have completed training, and more than 200 have been employed for three months or more. Information on the remaining 400 graduates was not immediately available.

Nirenberg said he is not disappointed with the return on investment through Train for Jobs so far.

“We expect those numbers to increase, obviously,” Nirenberg said. “But at the front end of this program, we’re not going to see a whole lot of job placement until those folks actually complete their training.”

The relatively small number of job placements produced by Train for Jobs may signal trouble for the voter-approved Ready to Work program, funded through a four-year sales tax that will generate about $154 million that will be spent to train up to 40,000 residents. Train for Jobs is widely seen as a kind of pilot program for Ready to Work, which will also provide two- and four-year degree scholarships.

Due to delays in formulating requests for proposals, the September launch of Ready to Work has been delayed by at least one month.

“What we’re working on right now is really understanding the most effective way to transition … so that there is no gap and so that there’s always a program available for residents who are interested in up-skilling,” Lopez said.

Off to a slow start

The city’s Train for Jobs program acts as an administrator for several partner organizations with workforce development initiatives, including Project Quest, Alamo Colleges District, Workforce Solutions Alamo, Chrysalis Ministries, Family Service, Restore Education, and SA Works.

This network provides free training for careers in health care, business, information technology, manufacturing, logistics, and other trades while providing a weekly stipend, if needed, for living expenses such as rent or child care.

About 4,600 residents completed the intake process in the first seven months of Train for Jobs. Since April, about 1,400 more residents have been deemed qualified for training placement through the program.

The program, part of the city’s recovery and resiliency plan funded through federal coronavirus relief dollars, anticipated more interest in short-term training programs that take several weeks, but it saw a much higher enrollment in longer-term training opportunities, Lopez said. That means it will take months longer for those participants to find a job.

Longer-term training typically results in higher wages for students in the long run, said David Zammiello, executive director of Project Quest. In addition to the time it takes for career exploration, many are “not going to graduate and be ready for the job market in a year.”

The partner organizations have built stronger relationships and there is a stronger referral network as a result of the program, Zammiello said. “All that takes time.”

David Zammiello, executive director of Project Quest. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

And there isn’t a clear road map for how a city should launch or operate programs like Train for Jobs and Ready to Work.

“I can’t think of another city that has taken this bold, focused strategic initiative on investing in its people,” Zammiello said.

Neither can Mark Elliott, president of the Economic Mobility Corporation, which has studied educational attainment and economic programs across the U.S., including Project Quest.

“Sadly, there aren’t that many analogous situations, because we haven’t had cities make huge investments in workforce development like this,” Elliott told the San Antonio Report.

“Judging [these programs] early is not necessarily a sensible way to think about whether they’ve been successful or not,” he said. “I have no way of knowing whether the investments that are being made now will pay off. But … I would not find it surprising that they got off to a slow start.

“We’ve seen workforce development programs across the country [that] really struggled with how to continue their operations during the pandemic.”

Therefore, creating a program from the ground up with multiple partners is likely to have similar struggles, he said.

Government entities invested in helping businesses and corporations post-pandemic, but there has been more scrutiny placed nationally – largely by Republicans – on programs for low-income residents, Elliott said.

“Luckily, San Antonio has an organization that has demonstrated that it does give a very substantial return on investment,” he said of Project Quest.

In Economic Mobility Corporation’s nine-year assessment of Project Quest, the organization found that participants’ earnings grew from an average of $11,722 to $33,644.

The work ahead for SA Ready to Work

One of the main obstacles that Ready to Work will face is balancing the city’s need for accountability with the partner organizations’ need for flexibility, said Zammiello.

“I would prefer the city be the facilitator and empower the agencies, than maybe trying to over-manage and over-control,” he said.

That tension played out in December when the city proposed hiring more than 60 employees to provide the case management services that partner organizations currently provide. That portion of the plan has since been scrapped, and the city instead plans to hire fewer than a dozen employees to administer the program.

“It’s an important balance,” Nirenberg said. “We have a responsibility to the taxpayer to make sure that we are providing proper oversight and accountability for the confidence that they’ve placed in this program.”

He doesn’t want to “hamper the program with unnecessary bureaucracy. We want to make sure that the resources are provided to those program providers, the curriculum providers, [and] the trainers, as quickly and as efficiently as possible.”

Much of those administrative and financial processes will be spelled out in the call for proposals and ultimately in the contracts that partner organizations sign. Two separate, third-party contracts will be used for marketing and program evaluation.

A draft government contract solicitation was released in May, and the city received more than 150 comments and suggested changes from potential partners. After a July 1 community meeting, the solicitation is slated to be released on July 6, and the city will accept responses for 45 days.

“Issuance of these RFPs has been delayed pretty significantly, but we think we’ve come to a better understanding” of what partner organizations need, Lopez told the Ready to Work Advisory Board.

The city plans on hosting up to two pre-bid conferences and one symposium during which applicants can ask questions about the contract requirements and learn about how the program is expected to operate.

In October, City Council is expected to vote on the partner contracts, Lopez said. By then, the city is slated to hire a new executive director for workforce development as Heber Lefgren, the city’s director of Animal Care Services, was only temporarily reassigned to run the day-to-day of Train for Jobs.

Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org