Finding and keeping workers in post-pandemic economy is a struggle for West Texas, local leaders tell Fed
ODESSA — Educators and employers are struggling to train, recruit and keep their workforce after the COVID-19 pandemic upended the way Texans learn and work, regional leaders told the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas last week.
Qualified workers — if they can be found — are burdened by financial stresses, such as finding good child care and transportation or being able to afford certification courses, educators and business leaders in the Permian Basin told the Fed as part of a listening tour. Local partnerships, public schools, local colleges and local companies — not the federal government — are the driving forces to solve these issues, they said. But progress is slow.
The event, known as Fed Listens, was at Odessa College and was the first in-person listening event for the federal reserve since the pandemic. Odessa is part of the Permian Basin, a constellation of more than 7,000 oil fields, and is often considered the energy capital of the U.S. The working-class city is home to more than 116,000 people.
Federal Reserve Gov. Michelle Bowman said while her agency is focused on fighting inflation, understanding the needs and challenges of the workforce is also important, prompting last week’s event.
“The challenge of finding willing and qualified workers stretches far beyond just those requiring specific skills,” Bowman said. “Our strong labor market has made it extremely difficult for growing businesses to find workers, which, if not addressed, could eventually undermine a strong economy.”
Willie Taylor, CEO of the Permian Basin Workforce Board, said the workforce demographic in the region has changed over the years and is now younger and primarily Hispanic. He has also seen that people who go to the board for help finding a job are looking for something with shorter training periods.
“We find that child care can be an issue,” Taylor said. “Transportation can be an issue, whether they need clothing, utilities and things of that nature. We’re finding all types of issues out there.”
Encouraging the right people to go into certain industries has become a problem for education leaders, too.
“The challenge is recruiting students into pathways where there are jobs available in our region, and that’s across the board from oil and gas to health care,” said Steve Thomas, president of Midland College. “Everything we do in Midland is based on the idea that we’re going to grow our own, and we’ve had that philosophy for a long time because it’s very difficult to recruit and retain employees and personnel to come to this part of the world.”
As a way to recruit students early on, Midland Independent School District partnered with Midland College to create career academies — business and information technology, health sciences and petroleum. The curriculum starts in the ninth grade, and by the time students graduate high school, they will be qualified to go into that field whether they continue on to college or not.
“That has been so successful for us, we’ve actually reached capacity at our academies,” Thomas said. “It gets students engaged early on, doing college-level work and seeing there is a goal where they can have gainful employment as soon as they exit high school.”
Odessa College also offers the first class free for all students and works with local employers to see what their needs are and how the college can help. This includes adding curriculum for short-term training programs or other courses that could potentially boost the workforce later on.
“We will tailor-make something that will help their future employers because we know they count on us to put in that service,” said Greg Williams, president of Odessa College. “It’s really important for us to meet students where they are, and it’s also important to meet employers where they are. That’s how we evolve.”
Education leaders at the event explained that they have seen problems starting with a lack of school readiness as early as pre-K and keeping parents involved in their children’s education. Scott Muri, superintendent of Ector County Independent School District, said his district is struggling with parents being engaged with education as they face financial stresses — 66% of the students live in poverty.
“It’s difficult to be engaged sometimes because of those constraints,” Muri explained. “They’re unable to participate in activities with their children, unable to financially provide for some of their academic, social and emotional needs.”
One of the common unmet needs the Ector County school district found during the pandemic was a lack of internet access for students. The state has begun addressing broadband issues by creating the Texas Broadband Development Map, which shows internet speeds and connectivity across the state. However, advocates have been challenging the accuracy of the map, which helps to determine where billions of dollars in funding will be going.
While the Permian Basin looks mostly connected on the map, there are many areas that are underserved. According to Muri, 39% percent of Ector County ISD students didn’t have access to high-speed broadband at home. The district investigated and found that it was a problem for more than the families it serves; it was a communitywide problem.
Leaders across all sectors in the county came together to form the ConnEctor Task Force, which is looking into funds that are available for broadband development, such as $363 million in grants awarded to the Texas Broadband Development Office by the U.S. Treasury earlier this year. Texas is also expected to receive billions of dollars through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
“We’re in the process of pursuing federal and state dollars to support this effort, and it’s going to require some local skin in the game,” Muri said. “But it goes back to the 39% of our families that didn’t have it but deserved it.”
State lawmakers are also likely to pass House Bill 9, which would put $5 billion into a Broadband Infrastructure Fund for expanding internet availability. Voters would have the final word on the investment later this year.