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By Paul Bradley  /  
2008 September 21 - 12:00 am

HISPANIC FOCUS: Driving Forward

WIn the years following its founding in 1993, South Texas College made a mark by producing truck drivers — thousands of new certified big-rig drivers, said founding President Shirley A. Reed.

The North American Free Trade Agreement had opened new economic highways, and the upstart college was there to help  a region hugging the Mexican border move from its agrarian roots into a future tied to international commerce.

Enrollment at the college— 600 students in its first year, about 20,000 today—has mirrored the explosive growth of the area around its McAllen home. The region has consistently ranked as one of the country’s fastest-growing for more than a decade.

Students can still train to become tractor-trailer drivers at South Texas, but they also can enroll in about 100 degree programs at five different campuses. The college’s workforce development centers boast of training more than 36,000 people now in the workforce. South Texas is also one of three community colleges in Texas state offering baccalaureate degrees; the second class of graduates got their degrees in May.

The college’s rapid growth has done little to dampen its ambitions. South Texas is expanding its footprint by helping spearhead an ambitious new initiative—a move to make the region a hub for advanced manufacturing.

The college is at the center of the North American Advanced Manufacturing Research and Education Initiative—called NAAMREI—a broad alliance of 60 business, education, economic development, industry, finance and government partners with the goal of positioning the region as an international leader in manufacturing.

Training the Workforce

“The college has been the driver of the economic development of the region,” said Reed, who helped found the institution and remains at its helm today. “When we were founded, we knew that the economic future of the region would depend on the ability of South Texas College to train the workforce.”

The college is one example of Hispanic-Serving Institutions thriving by taking on essential roles in the economic development and health of the regions they serve.

This spring, seven HSIs were among community colleges that won grants of up to $2 million from the U.S. Department of Labor to bolster their workforce development efforts. The grants came from the Community-Based Job Training Grants program, designed to spur employment through local job and education partnerships.

South Plains College, in Levelland, Texas, won a $1.6 million grant and is addressing a shortage of health care workers, planning a clinical simulation center where health care students in 15 western Texas counties can receive training.

East Los Angeles College won a $1.8 million grant and will work with five hospitals to create a bridge program for licensed vocational nurses who want to become registered nurses.

With a $1.7 million grant, Suffolk County Community College is working with four employers to train current and displaced workers in “mechatronics”—the intersection of mechanics, electronics and computer programming.

But nowhere are plans more ambitious than at South Texas. Founded with $5 million from the U.S. Department of Labor and another $3 million from the Texas Workforce Commission, NAAMREI has an audacious goal — returning the ailing manufacturing sector to American soil.

The first phase of the effort was completed in April when the Rapid Response Manufacturing Center opened its doors at the University of Texas-Pan American, the other chief education partner in the initiative.

The university will provide the intellectual know-how, working with industry to identify products and processes ripe for advanced manufacturing in burgeoning fields such as aerospace, automotive, defense and logistics.

Said Blandina Cardenas, UTPA president: “Through NAAMREI’s efforts, our region’s workforce will be prepared to fill tomorrow’s jobs, jobs that provide high wages, sustained economic growth and an improved quality of life for our growing population.”

Key Training Role 

A consortium of community colleges, led by South Texas and called the Rio South Texas Manufacturing College Alliance, will provide the hands-on training. The college also houses the administrative headquarters of NAAMREI.

“The college is really driving the training component,” said Wanda Garza, director of the college’s Partnership for Business and Industry Training. “It’s a natural fit for us. We have a good relationship with the university, and we’re closely tied to the community and its needs. Community colleges are really taking a leadership role in economic development.”

NAAMREI has ambitious goals, both long- and short-term. By 2017, its wants to increase the number of manufacturing jobs in the region from about 17,000 to 25,000.

Over the longer term, it strives to develop a competitive manufacturing workforce through a regional manufacturing credentialing system, aligning the area’s high school, post-secondary and economic development activities. It is part of the region’s effort to land an automobile assembly plant. Its long-term vision includes an advanced manufacturing research and industrial park.

The economic underpinning of NAAMREI is the imperative  to reduce the time its takes for a new product to go from conception to market.

Those ambitions seem far removed from the college’s modest roots. The college is the only one in Texas created by state law, and when the Texas legislature passed the measure creating the college, the region was one of the country’s largest without a community college.

The region was poor. Unemployment in Hidalgo County was 24 percent. In neighboring Starr County, which is part of the community college district, it was 40 percent. Today, Hidalgo’s unemployment rate is about 6 percent; in Starr County, it is near 9 percent.

“I really do not think that would have happened without South Texas,” Reed said.

Mike Allen, chairman of the Board of Trustees and a former chief executive officer of the McAllen Economic Development Corp., agreed. He recalled that when the college was founded, companies relocating to the region and those already there were griping that could find enough workers.

“We tried to get Texas State Technical College to come in, but it didn’t work out,” he said. “We decided to set up our own college. We originally thought it wasn’t within our reach, but it was.”

“South Texas College really has been the linchpin of our economic success,” he said.

Well-Positioned

In many ways, the college owes its growth to its location.  The area’s proximity to Mexico has fueled ambitions for it to become an international center for manufacturing and distribution. The McAllen area is growing rapidly. Its population has increased by more than 85 percent since 1990 and is expected to double by the year 2030. It has a wealth of residents aged 18 to 24.

Policy makers remain mindful that problems persist beneath the statistical surface, which show the scope of the challenge facing them.

For example, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 84 percent of all households in the region speak a language other than English at home.

In Hidalgo County, of which McAllen is the county seat, only about half of all residents have a high school diploma, and only about 13 percent have a bachelor’s degree. In nearby Starr County, just over one-third of residents have a high school diploma and fewer than 7 percent have a four-year degree.

Also, while unemployment has declined, wages for workers lag  behind the rest of the state. Per capita personal income in 2006 was $17,409 in Hidalgo County and $12,971 in Starr County, compared to $35,166 for Texas as a whole.

Those kinds of numbers are part of the impetus for NAAMREI, Garza said.

“We know our real challenge is the high number of people with no high school diploma,” she said. “What we want to change is the per capita income. Without that, you don’t have real prosperity.”

Reed has a broader vision for the college’s future.

“What we need to create is a college-going culture,” she said. “Many of our students are the first in their families to go to college. We know it will be a long process, but we think that every time we graduate a student, we change a family. It might take a generation, but that is our goal.”

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