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Time for San Antonio to address workforce challenges

Commentary by Peter John Holt

San Antonio is a wonderful place to live, raise a family and start or grow a business. Our great quality of life, strong sense of community and rich history and culture are among the reasons our population is expected to grow by more than 1 million residents over the next two decades.

However, the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau highlights some major challenges to this optimistic vision of San Antonio — challenges the public and private sectors must address candidly, positively and in the spirit of community that distinguishes our city.

Here are some of the key challenges laid out by the census. San Antonio has the highest big-city poverty rate in the nation, with 20 percent living below the poverty line. We’ve made some progress in educational attainment, but rates are still below state and national averages with less than 25 percent of residents with a bachelor’s degree or higher. San Antonio remains one of the most economically segregated cities in the country as well.

On top of the census data, we can layer some local research. Because we begin with a lower level of educational attainment than most of our peer cities, San Antonio faces a major obstacle in filling the talent pipeline for desirable jobs.

“We know that our population is projected to grow by 1 million by the year 2040,” says SA2020’s Talent Pipeline Task Force Report, “and industry needs continue to grow disproportionately to the skill attainment of our workforce.” That means if we are going to continue to attract targeted businesses with high-paying jobs to San Antonio, we must do a better job at workforce development.

When people read the word “workforce,” they often think of abstract data points and statistics, which are meaningful. But it’s important to remember that those data points reflect real people, and the statistics represent their aspirations for themselves and their families.

In order to build our economy, in order to build the prosperous, inclusive future we desire for San Antonio, we have to invest in our people. Programs like Pre-K 4 SA, Alamo Promise and SA Works are making these needed investments in human capital at every stage of the educational process. The San Antonio Economic Development Foundation and SA Works — our community’s primary workforce development agency — have put a renewed focus on talent development that has made San Antonio a model for the integration of economic and workforce development programs.

But there is much more that must be done, which will require the business community and private-sector organizations to enhance their efforts and cooperation with our public sector partners. Said another way, the business community needs to step up.

What are some successful examples of the private sector partnering with public agencies? Here are a few that I’m familiar with.

Early Matters, a nonprofit organization that is seeking to increase access to high-quality, full-day preschool and put children on the path to educational success during their first eight years of life.

The United Way of San Antonio and Bexar County, which is faced with a national trend of declining charitable giving. To adapt, they have chosen to focus their resources on key impact areas, including programs that enable students to graduate from high school ready for college or with the necessary career training to succeed.

Still another example is SA Works and its efforts to increase capacity in vocational trades and STEM fields. This summer, SA Works was successful placing 400 student interns from area high schools. The challenge was that over 1,400 students applied for placement among the 53 San Antonio employers who offered internships. In a city our size? The number of employers should be five times that many.

Other examples include Project Quest, Alamo Academies and CAST Schools, along with many others.

I love San Antonio, am grateful to raise my family here and humbled to be in a position to help shape our region’s future. As the CEO of a family business that is committed to our community, I want to ensure we continue to create quality jobs that give San Antonio residents the opportunity to succeed. But to do so, we need to drown out the noise that blames a failing education system, a government that is not doing enough, lazy youth and out-of-touch leaders.

Take action now and join a board, give to one of the many worthy public/private organizations and create internship programs at your place of business. We can either continue the blame game or step up with our collective support by investing in building our future workforce. How will you choose?

Commentary originally appeared in the San Antonio Express News. Peter J. Holt is CEO and general manager of HOLT CAT and chairman of Spurs Sports & Entertainment.