AUSTIN, Texas — Laura Castillo Macedo made one of the toughest decisions in her life when she left Honduras to come to the U.S.
“[Honduras] is a beautiful country, but sometimes you just can’t have good opportunities there,” Castillo Macedo said.
She lived many years in Alaska.
“I am a [U.S.] citizen now. I love this country. This is my country now,” Castillo Macedo said.
She worked in Alaska as a certified nurse assistant. When she moved to Texas a few months ago, the certification didn’t transfer. So, she went to a nearby Workforce Solutions Office.
“There's a lot of different routes they can take,” Paul Fletcher, CEO, Workforce Solutions Rural Capital Area said.
Workforce Solutions Rural Capital Area is a Workforce Development Board for the State of Texas.
“We've worked with a lot of customers that are maybe single parents. They don't have the luxury of going to a two-year or four-year college. They need to do something quickly,” Fletcher said.
In response to the unemployment surge earlier this year, the Texas Workforce Commission moved $10 million into a skills development fund.
The state spent $1.7 million for everyone to have access to Metrix Learning. It has more than 5,000 courses.
“The intent was to make as many resources as we could available to the most people,” said Courtney Arbour, director of Texas Workforce Commission’s Workforce Development Division.
The state also spent federal dollars to reach a broad audience. Nearly a half-million federal dollars went to a math assistance call center, and state contracts show two call centers set up to guide claimants through registering for work and training.
“We've emailed every claimant in Texas letting them know that we've made this available to them at no cost,” Arbour said.
“If you come in today, we could usually get you connected to employment immediately,” said Fletcher. “But it's probably not the job you want to do for the rest of your life."
“These resources are so helpful,” Castillo Macedo said.
Castillo Macedo got temporary work under disaster recovery. She also takes free online classes. Her goal is to use her skills she’s learning now to get a different job in healthcare.
“I know that they can continue helping me,” Castillo Macedo said.
Besides coursework, you can get apprenticeships through these local boards and find contacts for labor unions. Find your local board at twc.texas.gov.
Q&A with Courtney Arbour, TWC Workforce Development Division
Proffer: "If I'm out of work, and I'm receiving my benefit. I've registered with WorkInTexas.com. Where do I go from here?"
Arbour: "Well, there are a number of choices, actually. Our priorities through COVID-19 – always really, but especially through COVID-19 – our priorities have been to match employers and job seekers with job opportunities that are available now. With COVID-19 especially helps to upskill as many unemployed Texans as we can.
"There's a lot of different services available to people, and I can get to those in a minute. But for now, I'll just highlight one, if that's OK. We heard with Metrix Learning to make more than 5,000 courses available to claimants in Texas. And some other companies are offering courses right now, too. They can expand their technical skills, learn some new workplace skills and beef up their resume while they have the opportunity to do it during COVID-19."
Proffer: "But this isn't official 'graduate with a certificate training,' right? This is being able to just broaden your skills."
Arbour: "That's correct. The workforce system offers a lot of opportunities for certificate-based or industry-based certification coursework through different programs that we offer. This Metrix online program that I'm mentioning is really just to learn some basics about a lot of different occupations or even just workplace skills, soft skills."
Proffer: "What is the best way someone can get on their feet if they've lost a job right now and they want to upskill, but they also need to make money? What are the sorts of things the state offers through these boards?"
Arbour: "Well, our advice would be to keep applying. Employers are hiring. So, don't stop applying for positions. If you find a class at the community college or the university or a career school or even these free online courses that I mentioned, take them. If you have the time, take them. Watch for hiring events in your local area. A lot of vendors and our workforce boards are hosting virtual hiring events very regularly. So we recommend that people keep their eye open for those. As a word of encouragement, there are a lot of job postings that are in high volume these days.
"If someone is trying to figure out what is an occupation, that is we are bouncing back during COVID-19, and what the volume looks like, some of them are registered nurses, software developers, computer occupations, all kinds of computer occupations, customer service reps, sales reps in different fields. Supervisors in retail and managers in multiple fields are also growing.
"Keep applying. There are jobs available and have a lot of jobs in high volume that we're seeing sort of bounced back and then watch for hiring events. There are a lot of virtual hiring events that the local workforce boards are hosting. Stay at it and take the opportunity to upskill if they can."
Proffer: What are some of the different sorts of programs that you guys do through the local workforce boards?
Arbour: "Gosh, a number of programs, they work with TANF and food stamp recipients to help upskill and move them off public assistance and into careers. They operate the Workforce Opportunity Investment Act programs where youth or adults who are income-eligible or those who have been dislocated from work can receive all kinds of services that are as basic as case management and career inventory assessment, all the way up to a couple of years of training, if that's what the person needs. In addition, there's a program that not many people know about is the Trade Adjustment Assistance Program.
"If a job is lost in America to foreign competition, then the government pays for retraining. It's a great program for helping people get skilled in something local and demand locally."
Proffer: "Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, would that open up a lot of people for the WOIA benefits?"
Arbour: "Yes. Claimants, because they've been dislocated, are eligible for the WIOA program. Honestly, most people can fit into one or more funding streams. So, we say if you think you can help from the workforce system, whether it's building a resume, help getting some interview skills or you think you want training, just call them and see. They can help you navigate your next move and figure out what programs you might benefit from."
Proffer: "I talked to the Workforce Solutions Rural Capital Area folks earlier today, and he told me, 'If you needed a job, we can get you a job right now.' I said, 'Hold on, backup. If I need to get paid. Right now, you can get me work?' And he said, 'Yeah, it's not going to be work that you want to do forever, but we can put food on the table.'
"When it comes to different sorts of training, is there one that's more recommended such as apprenticeships versus certificates versus going back to school?"
Arbour: "No, we believe there are many paths. College isn't for everyone. Apprenticeship may not be the best fit for everyone, but 'earn while you learn' models are really growing in popularity. We find a lot of values, benefits the employer and the job seeker. So, we will always support apprenticeships and other work-based learning. Short-term certificates, industry by certifications, we try to promote all of those things. Always in light of what employers in the area are saying, local workforce boards are always in communication and even adult education providers. We also facilitate the adult ed. program in Texas. The local boards and adult ed. grantees always partner with employers to find out what the needs are and they try to build training programs around that."
Proffer: "What are you what are you finding right now in regards to that?"
Arbour: "Well, it's an interesting time in our country and in our state because we have all these automation changes coming from the future of work and artificial intelligence. Then, comes a pandemic. So, we're seeing healthcare have very specific needs. They were making technology changes before this. Manufacturing is doing the same. Then, you see with COVID-19 the need to adjust some of what they're doing to respond to this pandemic.
"It's a very interesting mix of things that are going on right now, but we see a lot of need for healthcare and manufacturing. Skilled-trades are always in need. Technology and computer software development and computer programming is always going to be big, we think, in Texas also."
Proffer: "Is this something that if I were working at a restaurant or the hospitality, which is one of the biggest job losses right now, you tell me I can work in healthcare or tech? Sounds kind of challenging. So, is that something that's feasible for anybody?"
Arbour: "Well, every person is unique in what they need. The local workforce boards do an assessment with everyone, an individual plan to get an idea of what your education is and what your interests are and help you in what is now labeled 'career pathways.' You may not start at the top rung of the ladder with going to six years of college, but you can start it in healthcare. Then, one certificate or one training program at a time, you can move your way up.
"So, there is a real effort in the workforce system nationwide to help people plot that out and understand that this job may not be the one you have next year or the year after. We're all in lifelong learning mode at this point. We need to keep adding to our skills to take ourselves to the next level, regardless of pandemic or not."
Proffer: "When it comes to how you guys work with a lot of work with the Workforce Development Board. Take me in those conversations. How are you deciding where to put your attention?"
Arbour: "There are 28 workforce boards in Texas, and as you know, this is a huge state, very diverse in every way. So the way that the structure is set up in federal law, and we agree in Texas should be, is there is a law that local wisdom drives the decision making. So, the workforce boards take labor market information, job-posting information and other data that TWC and others provide. They look at their local areas to see which jobs are in greatest demand and which ones they want to target. That's where they basically spend a lot of their resources for training dollars to help make sure that employers in the area that have specific needs in these targeted areas that the workforce boards are building a pipeline. Adult ed. operates in a similar fashion where they try to build programs to help meet employer pipeline and worker pipeline needs."
Proffer: "How many people would you say that that you guys helped find jobs in a given year? Do you guys keep track of that?"
Arbour: "We do. It will never be a perfect number because a lot of people use the WorkInTexas.com system and will refer to a job. We may never know that they got that job, but we know that over 400,000 as of June 2019. That last 12-month period leading up to June 2019, there were over 400,000 people placed after having participated in one of our programs or workforce initiatives."
Proffer: "What's the goal for this year? I would assume a lot bigger."
Arbour: "That's a great question because these are all federal programs and they come from different federal agencies, not every goal or target is the same. It's very common for 69% to be the goal in some of these federal programs."
Proffer: "You mentioned in the last commission meeting 15,814 courses have been completed. That's a lot. So, why should someone do it, if it's something that we're not going to get a certificate for? Why should we go down that road?"
Arbour: "People can take those courses and then go on to test for the certificate. There are a lot of opportunities in Texas to take coursework on your own and then go test out. There's guidance within this system telling people how to do that. This was intended to get as many opportunities out as we could to as many people. We sent this information to every single claimant in the State of Texas.
"The intent was to make as many resources as we could available to the most people. So, when we partnered with Metrix, we knew that not everybody could end up with a certificate or a degree, but this gets it out there to every single one. There's no limit on how many courses a person can take. It can at least help give them an opportunity to consider other occupations they might want to really dig into and take as many courses on this as they'd like to go on to take the test if they'd like. Or engage with the local workforce board or adult ed. provider if they qualify and extend their schooling that way."
Proffer: "You also mentioned there are call centers reaching out to folks, telling them about resources available. What's going on there?"
Arbour: "In the Workforce Commission, we don't deal a lot with call centers outside of unemployment insurance assistance. But given what we're seeing happening in the number of people who are being laid off. We knew that there were a lot of them that have never been laid off before or receiving unemployment. So, we wanted to be proactive in starting to make calls, partnering with the local workforce boards who are making calls also. We all we wanted to all-hands-on-deck approach where we made as many calls as we could to let them know how to register, how we can help them build a resume if they haven't done that in a while, what type of free courses are available, how to access programs at the Workforce Solutions offices if they could benefit from that. The call center staff were just onboarded. The two third-party call centers were on board and to try to help claimants navigate all of this."
Proffer: "This is different than processing UI claims?"
Arbour: "That's correct. This is more on the job search side of things. We're making calls helping them to know how to access other services if they need it."
Proffer: "If someone says, but I know I have this UI problem, do you just transfer them over to a different call center?"
Arbour: "If when we're talking to a claimant and they have another issue, we work it through the UI team."
Proffer: "What are some of the things that the local boards are telling you that they need as far as resources or money or anything like that?"
Arbour: "Well, our whole system had to shift quickly. The boards already had a virtual presence and certainly their Website. Some have online orientation and different online offerings. But not to the magnitude we needed. When you put shelter-in-place, they had to close for safety. They had to do a lot of ramping up.
"We had certain things in place, some orientations and resume writing. There are things we would do by phone already, but not to the degree we needed to during this pandemic when the physical doors actually closed. So, boards started letting us know about concerns about being able to operate all of the programs timely when you when there's a lot of paperwork involved and normally people come in for an in-person visit or they come in to pick up gas cards or something else that requires an in-person visit. In April, very early on, the commission approved funds and in a few different ending streams. The goals of that were to make sure that workforce boards and adult ed. grantees had some flexibility in how they were serving the public. Funds were available for everything from virtual tools, virtual hiring event software. That was a very common need because most boards didn't have that in place. [They needed] tools for gathering signatures electronically, online orientations and workshops. Those that needed to build out that capacity, the funding was set aside for that. In addition, the rest of the skills development funding was approved, but a streamlined model. We recognized that employer needs were going to change very quickly. We needed to streamline the Skills Development Fund as much as possible. The commission approved that we could just go ahead and grant the dollars to the community colleges when they made a request and then business partners could be added along the way. When a business partner came in and said, I have a specific need related to COVID-19 or something else, the community college already had the funding on hand and could begin working with them. So, it really sped things up."
Proffer: "That money goes to get people who are needing an education to get them that sort of training or credential?"
Arbour: "Yes, the Skills Development Fund is intended to upskill workers that employers have the need to upskill. The remainder of the funding that we mention goes to the workforce boards and others to help them build out their virtual capacity or their distance learning capacity, in some cases for adult ed. to make sure that services weren't disrupted."
Proffer: "Back in June, you talked about how a lot of the training was centered around COVID-19 the pandemic. How many people got jobs back then?"
Arbour: "With the COVID-19 grants, we've enrolled about 386 people in the areas of the state who had need for the funds. We are providing short-term training, helping workforce boards to expand their capacity, like I mentioned. In many cases, we're also doing what is called 'disaster relief employment,' where we're paying the wages for a number of hours. One of the major goals of the grant from the Department of Labor is to help people be in a paid position to help with something like humanitarian work or other paid work that benefits the community. So we have 386, I believe, enrollments to date in that disaster grant."
Proffer: "Are there requirements tied to that? Do I have to be low-income or any other sort of qualifications?"
Arbour: "For any of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act funding, you can qualify about either being a dislocated worker and there are several categories, but basically being laid off is the primary. The other is income-based."
Proffer: "Is the disaster grant part of the WIOA money?"
Arbour: "It's WIOA funding that comes from the Department of Labor specifically for these disaster grants."
Proffer: "I see."
Arbour: "The Department of Labor provides WIOA funding to states, and sometimes it is in the form of a disaster grant."
Proffer: "As far as training opportunities, is there anything being offered right now that's outside of that disaster training?"
Arbour: "Well, are of the many, many programs operated TWC and the local level for the workforce boards. There are always training opportunities. The adult ed. providers, vocational rehab, the workforce boards, all partner with industry to determine what the needs are, what the target occupations are, and then some element of that program is available and is focused on training. "
Proffer: "At a commission meeting, you said that you were 'nudging' folks to get into these training and jobs. What is nudging? What does that look like?"
Arbour: "We nudge in a lot of ways, but I was talking about the Metrix Online Learning opportunity. I was referencing that, we've emailed every claimant in Texas letting them know that we've made this available to them at no cost, to get in and take advantage, look at the offerings and see if there's any of interest. What we're doing now is sending reminder emails. We have a dashboard. We're able to look at dashboard data to see who has and hasn't logged in, who has started a class and dropped. We also want to know how well the system is working for people. So we're sending nudges. We're about to send a survey to get feedback. But the nudges are really emails saying, 'We see you haven't started the class yet. Time is of the essence. Use the time to build up your resume.'"
Proffer: "You are also setting up some math call centers?"
Arbour: "In the adult education literacy program, we serve close to 70,000 people every year. They're working toward their high school equivalency and often getting some occupational training. But math seems to be the hardest thing for most learners. Young and old. The math call center isn't a new concept. Since 2016, we've been funding these math call centers. With recognizing that more classes for adult ed. were going to distance learning models, and since math requires some extra support, the commission approved additional funding for that. So, the students calling in could get what they need."
Proffer: "So, when we put out this report and say there are two call centers that's calling people to help them get services and two call centers providing math. [Viewers] are going to come back to me and say, 'Why aren't those call centers answering my phone calls and helping me with my unemployment?' So, what would you say to those people? Can those call centers take unemployment problems and process them?"
Arbour: "Well, the math call center is funded by education literacy dollars for adult education, literacy students. We've been doing that since 2016. It's a need in the program. We just expanded it during COVID-19 to make sure that students have what they need since they're doing distance learning.
"The other call centers where we're calling claimants to help, when we do have a question, we are helping them with that. But those call centers are also funded differently, with different goals. The goal of those call centers is to help people get to work, help them build a resume, I learn about all the training opportunities that they have. It's more of a COVID-19 response effort to help people get reconnected to the workforce."
Proffer: "When you are looking at services to get people educated, to get people in jobs, there's a lot of regulation that's tied to that. How much red tape do you have to go through with giving out this money?"
Arbour: "Most of our programs that operate in the workforce system are federally funded and they're pretty clear. There's federal law. The federal agency provides guidance to states on how to implement. We've been doing this is a long time. So I don't know that we have a lot of difficulty. We've got a pretty seamless process. The federal government provides the funding and the regulation that's based on this federal law. Then, we provide guidance down to the grantee, whether it be adult ed. or an apprenticeship provider or a workforce board on how to operate the program."
Proffer: "So during a prior commission meeting, I heard a lot of chatter among grant money keeping what we can in Texas. Can you explain what's going on there?"
Arbour: "Yes, there actually are federal regulations around procurement. We've had some discussion about this on when a preference can be given to a Texas employer or a Texas business. At the end of the competitive process, if a non-Texans bidder scores the same as a Texas bidder, preference is given to the Texas bidder. That's in federal regulation. We don't have the authority when we're procuring federal dollars to give a Texas preference unless in the event of a tie."
Proffer: "The purpose of this story or the goal of this story is if somebody is laid off, they're out of work, they're distraught, they don't know where to go. We want to help them figure out where to go and what all is available. So, is there anything that I'm missing that I haven't asked you? You're plugged in. You are the source when it comes to what people can do to get a leg up."
Arbour: "There are more than 180 Workforce Solutions offices in the state. In all offices is a staff who both serves employers to find out what they need in hiring and training their workforce and also help job seekers to plug into programs that might benefit them or just look for work. I think a great first step for anyone is to get to a local workforce solutions office.
"For anyone that doesn't have a high school equivalency or feels concerned that they wouldn't be able to test at a high school level that can contact a local adult ed. provider. There are hundreds of sites also that we provide funding for. That's a great first step if someone needs to increase their education. Look at local workforce options offices, adult education providers or contact TWC and we'll help point them in the right direction."
Proffer: "Are they doing GED classes?"
Arbour: "We operate the adult education literacy program. They're learning and preparing for a high school equivalency. There are hundreds of grants through the state that are funded by TWC to provide those classes. And yes, the adult education program has done a great job. They were already doing some online courses or distance learning courses, and they expanded it very quickly during the pandemic."
Proffer: "Anything else?"
Arbour: "I would say if employers need to skill their workforce, the Skills Development Fund, again, is available. If they have trainees that they need to adjust some of their operating practices or they need to upskill workers because of COVID-19 in some new practices they have, they can contact us at TWC at the Skills Development Fund."
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