A new jobs training program will work with low-skilled border residents to prepare them for employment in high-paying jobs.
Funded by a $6 million U.S. Department of Labor grant, the new program targets the "hardest to serve" Texas-Mexico border residents who often lack basic education attainment and English proficiency, said Yvonne "Bonnie" Gonzalez, the CEO of Workforce Solutions.
"We don't normally have funding to work with the hardest to serve," said Gonzalez, who collaborated with her counterparts at other workforce development boards along the border to design the program. "This is an opportunity to take those folks through a quick-paced credentialing program that gets them into good paying jobs."
Called Growing Regional Opportunity for the Workforce, or GROW, the three-year project will increase skills training and English literacy for about 1,200 people who live along the border. Project GROW was one of 26 grantees selected from more than 5,000 applicants nationwide for the Workforce Innovation Fund, a Labor Department grant pool created to test innovative approaches to workforce training.
The five workforce development boards spanning El Paso to Cameron counties joined forces in December to rapidly accelerate the development of the local workforce and create a competitive advantage for the border region, said Workforce Solutions spokesman Victor de Leon. With border communities facing similar obstacles for their workforce, it made sense to bring together resources for projects like GROW.
Through Project GROW, the border's workforce boards will partner with regional employers, community colleges and training providers to accelerate credential attainment and career entry by lower-skilled adults, he said. Project GROW will assist participants from the start of the program until the end with everything from career counselors who guide their progress to support services, such as childcare and tuition assistance.
The project is a larger-scale version of Breaking Through, a national initiative that helped community colleges advance lower-skilled adults into career and technical programs with high demand in their regions.
It's designed to take underprepared adults and segment them based on particular needs and career goals, said Gloria Mwase, the program director of Jobs for the Future, the Boston-based nonprofit that developed Breaking Through. Adults with low English proficiency, for example, will need more intensive training than those simply lacking a high school diploma.
"The border will not be successful or competitive unless you figure out how to engage the low-skilled workers to help them become productive members of your workforce," she said. "The border is an area where there is a great diversity in resources, but you need cost-effective strategies that can help advance workers."
While the grant will only help about 1,200 people, a key component of the Workforce Innovation Fund is evaluating the effectiveness of each workforce strategy. Lessons learned through Project GROW later could be implemented in other initiatives by the five workforce development boards.
But Project GROW's aim is to take unskilled residents, train them and place them in jobs, said Pat Hobbs, executive director for Workforce Solutions Cameron. In May's unemployment statistics released Friday, Hidalgo and Cameron counties had the two highest unemployment rates in Texas at more than 10 percent.
Hobbs said the Valley's monthly recurrence at the top of the Texas Workforce Commission's list is largely due to the low quality of its workforce.
"When half your workforce is untrained or uneducated, you're going to have the highest unemployment in the state," he said. "If you upgrade their skill levels to something that fits the need, you're going to impact unemployment numbers fast."
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