New workforce plan aims at income side of Austin affordability dilemma

City, county and local business officials will unveil a comprehensive new regional workforce training plan Thursday, seeking to address Austin’s twin challenges of affordability and economic inequality by boosting incomes rather than controlling costs.

With much of the public debate focused on Austin’s rising property taxes, housing prices and overall cost of living, the proposal will focus instead on boosting the salaries of thousands of low-income Central Texans by lifting them into middle-skill jobs.

Commissioned last year by Mayor Steve Adler and Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt, the Austin Metro Area Master Community Workforce Plan will provide the initial blueprint for how employers, educators and workforce agencies can generate more bang for the job-training buck.

“There are two ways to make things more affordable,” Adler said. “They can cost less or you can give people more money to spend. It’s pretty simple.”

Scheduled to be announced Thursday morning, the program initially will target residents with incomes that are less than 200 percent of the federal poverty line — $23,760 for an individual or $48,600 for a four-person family. By 2021, it aims to boost to 10,000 the number of low-income individuals who complete training programs and land jobs that pay an average annual wage of more than $40,000.

The proposal emerged from a challenge posed by Adler and Eckhardt, who have noted the good but often uncoordinated efforts area organizations provide for workers with few in-demand skills.

Adler said the importance of creating the metro area’s first regional workforce plan “can’t be overstated.”

“Our issues and challenges are growing more regional every year,” he said, “so to have … the city and county governments coming together on something like this helped us get a product that I think is going to have a great impact, but also be a model of what we need to be doing with each other over time.”

Adler and Eckhardt asked workforce and business officials to hammer out a set of goals within a targeted set of industries. While the plan eventually could umbrella a wide range of sectors and occupations, it initially focuses on information technology, health care and skilled trades.

“We create more middle-skill jobs than almost anywhere in the country,” Adler said. “We have the jobs, but we don’t have skilled people to take those jobs.”

To alleviate that mismatch, the community plan sets out to better coordinate and streamline the array of workforce and training services throughout Central Texas. While individual organizations have effective programs in place, the region’s infrastructure as a whole needs to be improved, officials said.

“Overall, as a community, we can do better at achieving higher rates of training completion (and) employment attachments,” said Tamara Atkinson, executive director of Workforce Solutions Capital Area, which covers Travis County. “We believe through this plan and working together over the next five years we can tighten that system and get better results overall in a way that is demand driven.”

According to calculations by the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, the city, county and Workforce Solutions spent roughly $17 million on job-training programs that graduated 300 workers in fiscal 2013 — an average of almost $57,000 per credential.

The master plan budgets about $15 million to graduate about 1,900 additional low-income students over the next five years — an average of less than $8,000 per credential.

To hit those numbers, Workforce Solutions and its partners set a 2017 goal to add 81 graduates to their baseline figure of 1,295 low-income workers and students who already earn a credential in a year. That target increases to 272 next year as it ramps up, according to chamber officials.

“They’re credible numbers,” said Drew Scheberle, senior vice president at the chamber. “They don’t require dramatic change.”

Scheberle praised Adler and Eckhardt for encouraging a systemwide reconsideration of the workforce training infrastructure, but he was especially complimentary of the efforts by Workforce Solutions, Austin Community College and the other firms and agencies that developed a comprehensive regional plan.

“We for years looked for a regional workforce plan we could steal, and there wasn’t one,” he said. “Best we can tell, this is the first regional plan” that doesn’t focus on just one or a small set of occupations, as Austin did with semiconductor manufacturing in the late 1990s.

Scheberle and his colleagues at the chamber have advocated for a more effective skill-training infrastructure in the region for years. He called this plan a great “Version One” from which to work, putting a structure in place to better measure, assess and make the necessary future adjustments to the system.

“In some ways, the easier but more important conversations are how you dial up on the marketing in a more effective way, or funding in a more effective way, or placement to get more people out of poverty and into” middle-wage jobs, he said. “That’s the more important question, but you couldn’t get there until you went through this process first.”

The plan establishes an end-to-end rethinking of how to get more workers into and through the job-training pipeline, and its strategies address many of the issues that labor-market researchers say often block that channel.

On the front end, the changes include a more robust and efficient industry partnership designed to help companies and educators identify the skills local employers need in both the short and long term. Concurrently, workforce organizations will seek to draw more workers into a variety of better-coordinated workforce training programs in the region.

Workforce Solutions Capital Area, which drafted the plan and is expected to serve as its “backbone” agency, said it hopes to boost the number of low-income Central Texans enrolling in middle-skill training programs to 30,000 by the end of 2021.

“We also need to produce better outcomes from our training systems,” Atkinson said. “We have partners doing fantastic work, but overall as a system we all can admit we have room for improvement (and) to see our outcomes increase.”

To that end, the master plan seeks to build out more wraparound services, such as daycare services and career navigators, to help ensure workers and students who enter the program finish it and find jobs in the fields for which they trained.

The involvement of career navigators, who provide one-on-one guidance for students and workers in training programs, tends to result in higher rates of retention and completion. A key portion of the new master plan includes an increased investment in such navigators.

At the outset, the master plan will focus on jobs in health care, information technology and skilled trades, which account for more than three-quarters of the middle-skill job openings in the region.

A recent analysis by the chamber found almost 14,000 postings for jobs that pay $30,000 to $60,000 annually — 35 percent of all open positions in the region. More than half of those require only a high school diploma.

The problem, the chamber argued, isn’t the lack of middle-wage jobs available in Central Texas, but a lack of unemployed Central Texans with the specific skills needed to fill those positions.

All told, the master plan sets a goal of 12,000 participants earning a credential, such as an associate degree or certificate, by the end of 2021. It anticipates at least 8,000 graduates landing a new job, with another 2,000 “upskilling” and advancing with their existing employers.

“We do spend a lot of time in this city focused on making things less expensive,” Adler said, noting affordable housing and other city and county efforts to ease the region’s rising cost of living. “But the other part of that is giving people more money to spend, and that happens through training and middle-skill development.”

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