The day after board members of the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce approved a position supporting the ballot initiative for a sales tax to fund education and job training, the business group hosted a panel of local officials urging voters to do the same. 

The SA: Ready to Work ballot initiative, which seeks to connect 40,000 employees displaced from the workforce during the pandemic with training and education opportunities, is designed to also give people the support they need to complete those programs.

The initiative would target industry sectors offering higher-wage, in-demand jobs and would be funded for four years. 

While workforce development has been a longstanding challenge for San Antonio, the problem has become even more consequential since the pandemic led to mass layoffs and widespread economic crisis, said Richard Perez, president and CEO of the San Antonio Chamber during Friday’s panel. 

Panelists included Mayor Ron Nirenberg, San Antonio Economic Development Foundation President and CEO Jenna Saucedo-Herrera, and Alamo Colleges Chancellor Mike Flores.

“Our prospective students actually don’t [look] at competitors or options,” Flores said. “We compete with poverty. So they’re looking at the equation between family and family responsibilities and education and training. And so what we need to do is actually not make that a binary choice – it’s not either-or, it’s actually both.”

Here are seven takeaways from the panel discussion:

San Antonio needs to transition from rescue to recovery.

When the public health crisis became an economic crisis, the City went into triage mode, Nirenberg said. 

“Very quickly, our priorities shifted to making sure people could put food on the table, making sure that people didn’t lose the roof over their heads and ensuring at some point that we could provide a safe way for us to get back to work, knowing that being able to sustain families is something that we’re going to have to work together on,” he said. “But certainly we’re going to have to start getting back to usual.”

The San Antonio Economic Development Foundation (SAEDF) also pivoted from long-term strategies aimed at attracting business to helping existing businesses stay afloat. 

“Early on in [the second quarter], we really turned our attention to business rescue, and we were able to scale our business retention program with a primary focus on small micro-businesses and outreach to learn what these organizations needed and to hold their hand along the way,” Saucedo-Herrera said.

“We also leaned into workforce recovery,” she added, because while thousands of jobs have been lost, both the state and the city are well-positioned to see growth in the demand for manufacturing and logistics workers as well as in the life sciences. 

But the city is starting from behind. 

Despite tremendous economic momentum before the pandemic began, the number of families who lined up for help from the San Antonio Food Bank in those early days of the crisis demonstrated the city has a lot of work to do in developing economic stability. 

“It was, in a sense, us all understanding that it’s not OK to go back to the way we were, that we have to emerge from this crisis better than we were,” Nirenberg said. 

More of the same is unacceptable, he said, and called for a doubling-down on preparing the workforce of the future. 

“We hadn’t been doing that, and so that’s where we started to rally around this notion that we need to focus on people,” Nirenberg said. “How do our people in our community emerge stronger, more resilient, and more economically mobile coming out of the pandemic?”

The demand for workers is not the problem. Supply is. 

“Job demand will not be a challenge,” said Saucedo-Herrera. “If you think about where we were at even prior to COVID, unfortunately, we had a significant skills gap issue.” Filling the in-demand occupations was already a struggle, she added. 

Industries that are hiring include manufacturing, tech, professional services, and health care. But the skill-match isn’t adequate for those jobs. “We’ve got the people, but we don’t necessarily have them trained,” Saucedo-Herrera said. They don’t have the certifications and education needed for the job openings that exist. 

But it’s going to take time for the tourism and hospitality industry to recover.

“The economic projections on the return of visitor tourism and hospitality in general are that it’s going to take some time. And so what we have been doing here in the City, with the County, is to ensure that [first] we restore consumer confidence,” Nirenberg said. 

And the fact that the hospitality industry in San Antonio was such a large part of the local economy underscores the need to focus on workforce development. 

But while the effort is underway to retrain and upskill workers for the jobs that are available, containing the spread of coronavirus in the community also makes it possible to attract visitors to the city and put people back to work.

“We’re able to go out and market and say to people out in the community here locally but also elsewhere, ‘come in, enjoy,’” Nirenberg said. “Because here in San Antonio, you can do it safely.”

Closing the current skills gap will pay off for both students and the community.

SA2020 estimated that by this year, San Antonio would need two-thirds of all working adults to have a post-high school credential in order to engage in the workforce, said Flores. “In fact, we only have a third.” And less than half of graduating high school seniors go on to attend college, he said.  

But the return-on-investment for a graduate from Alamo Colleges is $9,400 more in income per year than those who don’t finish college, according to an economic impact study Flores cited. And investment in the individual pays off for the entire community.

He said Alamo Promise, the free tuition program for qualified students at Alamo Colleges, is estimated to generate $1.7 billion in economic impact for the city, including $35 million more in additional sales tax revenue and $27 million more in property tax revenue. 

Ensuring completion in training and education programs requires a helping hand. 

Assigning students to a case manager who helps the student overcome challenges is how Alamo Colleges is improving completion. “That’s why we’ve doubled graduation rates,” Flores said. It’s also been effective at other area colleges, including the University of Texas at San Antonio and Texas A&M-San Antonio. “We now understand that we need to address the issues outside of the classroom so our students can be successful.”

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That’s how the SA: Ready to Work initiative also will work. “I think we’re right on target with what we’re looking at,” Flores said. “We know how students can be successful, how they can cross the finish line, how they can have that ticket to the middle class which is their credential, and then be ready to go.”

Long-term workforce development requires long-term funding. 

Funding for workforce development that came from the federal CARES Act will expire in December. “Beyond that, there really isn’t a revenue stream to scale that can build a program like what we’re talking about,” Nirenberg said. “And it’s not just the sales tax. All of the different providers including Project Quest, the nonprofits, the philanthropic community, and certainly the educational institutions, have skin in the game.”

Private industry is involved as well. But the initiative Nirenberg is promoting requires a revenue stream that is predictable.

“So with a vote of the public, this allows us to continue and extend that program through 2025, so that the industries, the employers, the educational institutions can plan the program and actually begin to hire and enroll in a curriculum-based program,” he said. 

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the business beat reporter at the San Antonio Report.