San Antonio’s fledgling job training program under scrutiny


As San Antonio’s job training program lags and officials try to suss out the details of its next phase, a key backer worries the initiative is in trouble.

COPS/Metro, a grassroots advocacy group, aggressively lobbied city leaders to create an emergency program to help some of the thousands of people thrown out of work amid the pandemic get the skills they needed to land higher-paying jobs.

The group’s leaders later threw their weight behind Mayor Ron Nirenberg when he asked voters in November to use sales tax dollars to create an expanded program.

But months after the idea proved victorious at the polls, members of COPS/Metro have grown increasingly disillusioned with how the city’s job training efforts have played out. They feel city officials have all but ignored their concerns. The group’s leaders are disappointed in the meager number of participants who have obtained training certificates and landed jobs through the emergency program — dubbed Train for Jobs SA.

Nine months after the $75 million initiative began, 214 people have been placed into jobs.

And COPS/Metro leaders worry the city hasn’t done enough to prepare for the next stage of its training efforts — Ready to Work, the $200 million program backed by a sales tax that will also help residents enroll in college degree programs. Already, the program’s rollout has been pushed back a month from September to October.

City officials drawing up Ready to Work have done so at a break-neck pace, COPS/Metro leaders argue, and focused too much on figuring out bureaucratic procedures rather than what jobs participants will train for — points that officials contest.

“They have just done this, if you will, by the seat of their pants,” said Sister Pearl Ceaser, former head of Project Quest, the jobs training program COPS/Metro founded more than 25 years ago.

When Train for Jobs began last September, officials said the program would help 10,000 people in some fashion, even if they didn’t complete their training and land jobs. But the program has fallen short of even that number — about 6,000 people have qualified for training and finished the program’s “intake” process.

For their part, COPS/Metro leaders said they initially expected low enrollment and job placement numbers — in part because it’s hard to roll out a jobs training program. The program’s participants have largely opted for training programs that take longer but theoretically will lead to even higher-paying work.

But the city risks seeing similar figures from Ready to Work if it doesn’t bring in more outside workforce development experts to weigh in and pinpoint jobs that will be there when participants graduate, COPS/Metro leaders contend.

“They will be recasting the same flawed program on a grander scale and come up with no better results than what they’re getting now,” said Sonia Rodriguez, a COPS/Metro leader who worked on Nirenberg’s Ready to Work campaign.

City officials said they are focused on those things. Nirenberg’s office provided a list of outside experts he and his staff has consulted with on the program.

They also pinpointed several target industries for Ready to Work, including health care, manufacturing and cybersecurity. Plus, they plan to release a detailed list of potential occupations for those who complete the program. Still, the city expects a third-party organization that will run the program to stay in touch with employers and ensure there are jobs waiting for program participants.

“We know what occupations command the wages and are in demand right now,” said Assistant City Manager Alex Lopez, who is overseeing both jobs training programs. “We know that already. Will that change year after year? Perhaps.”

It’s not the first time COPS/Metro has aired grievances publicly about Ready to Work. Its members were outraged when city staff floated a proposal in December to hire 65 new city employees and create a new agency to enroll participants in job training and college degree programs and help make sure they don’t drop out. Rodriguez labeled the proposed department a “bloated bureaucracy.”

Officials pulled back that proposal, opting instead to contract out that work — along with the training itself — to an outside organization.

That process, too, has drawn heat. After the city put out a document detailing its expectations for the contract, COPS/Metro and would-be contractors complained the expectations were too strict and would amount to micro-management by the city. Officials went back to the drawing board and plan to open the bidding process July 6.

City leaders have largely defended how Train for Jobs has performed and how Ready to Work is taking shape. Even if they needed work, prospective enrollees in Train for Jobs likely were scared off given the prevalence of COVID-19 in the program’s early days, officials and proponents have posited. Employers also were slow to hire over the winter months.

But since the beginning of the year, interest in Train for Jobs has grown as the pandemic eases and more residents receive doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, officials have said.

“We are building an unprecedented workforce program, and we knew all along that we would face challenges,” Nirenberg said in a statement. “That is a natural part of the process, and we will address the challenges as they arise.”

But Nirenberg said he’s with COPS/Metro when it comes to concerns about how long it’s taking the city to hire an executive director to oversee Ready to Work. The city was intially expected to hire someone by May. Months later, the position hasn’t been filled — and it’s unclear when it will be. A city spokeswoman said the hiring process is “in its final selection stage.”

Further baffling COPS/Metro leaders: The person overseeing the city’s current job training program is Heber Lefgren, who leads the city’s Animal Care Services department.

“Do we not have people who know a little more about workforce development who might be in the leadership positions?” Rodriguez told the Express-News editorial board.

City staff defended the move to put Lefgren in the spot overseeing Train for Jobs’ day-to-day operations on a temporary basis.

Lefgren “has been instrumental in many of the innovations and improvements” to Animal Care Services, City Manager Erik Walsh said in a statement. His past work in the city’s budget and innovation offices gave Lefgren “a solid foundation for creative, effective system design and implementation,” Walsh said.

Ready to Work will be rolled out in October — after City Council awards the contract to run the program. But the program will steadily ramp up with a stronger push to get enrollees through the doors starting in January — in part to allow the contractor time to get settled.

“We’ve learned we need to do a soft launch,” Lopez said during a Thursday public form on the program. “It’s not going to be flipping a switch.”

Even after the city hires the contractor, officials expect there to be kinks to work out. To Rodriguez, the time to iron out those kinks is before that organization is hired.

“There’s a real lack of logic in all of this and sequence that is still missing,” Rodriguez said.

Despite their misgivings, COPS/Metro leaders don’t plan to walk away from the process.

“It’s too important,” Rodriguez said. “This one is too big to fail.”

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