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West Central Texas Region: Manufacturing Partnership

Elizabeth Sobel Blum

July 2018

About the Next Generation Sector Partnership Model

Next Generation Sector Partnerships are regional collaborations of businesses, from the same industry and in a shared labor market region, that work with education, workforce development, economic development and community organizations to address workforce and other pressing competitiveness needs of a target industry. While the concept of public-private partnerships or even workforce sector partnerships is not unique, Next Generation Sector Partnerships are distinct in three ways: 1) they are industry-driven; 2) they are community supported; and 3) they are comprehensively focused on workforce and economic development. Partnerships launch when industry leaders in one geographic region (such as West Central Texas) come together to identify their biggest shared opportunities for growth, then prioritize the most important requirements to capitalize on those opportunities. In response, educators, workforce boards, chambers of commerce, community-based organizations and others coordinate with each other and partner with the industry to address these requirements.

The Next Generation Sector Partnership model strongly reflects an “open-source” approach to workforce and economic development. No individual person or organization owns it—industry sector business leaders own it with their community partners. Partnerships act as an operating system by serving as a platform for discourse, analysis, decision-making, coordination and innovation for the benefit of industry, the regional economy that hosts it and the jobseekers and workers who reside in the community.

While it may be counterintuitive to some that industry leaders would work with their competitors, they come to the table because they recognize that some of the industry’s most important requirements for growth and competitiveness span the region and their industry, and issues cannot be resolved independently. For more information about the model, see the Next Generation Sector Partnerships website and the publication “Regional Talent Pipelines: Collaborating with Industry to Build Opportunities in Texas” by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas and Center for Public Policy Priorities.

West Central Texas: Emerging Next Generation Sector Partnership

An economic development study of Abilene and its surrounding geographies identified the three industry clusters with the greatest potential for expansion: manufacturing, health care, and information technology. All three sectors are prominently featured in the workforce development plan of Workforce Solutions of West Central Texas. The organization’s board is in the early stage of convening a partnership in one of these key clusters, manufacturing, and will pursue restarting a previous health care effort soon. The board has embraced this approach to enhance connections between business and education partners and improve alignment of education and workforce training to address employer skill requirements. The board also hopes that local consumers of education and training programs will be able to more easily map out their options and make decisions on the classes and job opportunities that best fit their interests and needs. The Workforce Solutions Board is the lead convener of these efforts but is supported by the West Texas Energy Consortium and Western Texas College via a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) Accelerator grant focused on STEM-related industries.

The Next Generation Manufacturing Sector Partnership

At one-year old, the West Central Texas Manufacturing Partnership represents dedicated and steady growth as a true network for manufacturers to make business-to-business connections and focus on big shared opportunities. Most of the partnership’s participants are CEOs, plant managers and human resources staff. Their companies vary greatly in size and in types of manufacturing. One small manufacturer, for example, has fewer than 25 employees and makes products that help with pain relief, while another manufacturer is large and makes giant boilers. Despite their differences, this emerging network quickly identified common areas of opportunity and creating subsequent committees.

First, manufacturers recognized the value in compiling best practices in identifying, recruiting and retaining workers, especially workers from the millennial generation (born between 1977 and 1994). To date, they have an inventory of 20 best practices for recruitment and retention and are interested in adding to the catalog regularly. They also have an interest in a recent comprehensive survey conducted by the Abilene Chamber of Commerce on what millennials want out of work and careers.

The second committee focuses on shared critical occupations, noting difficulty in finding adequate training for workers but understanding that to justify development of new training at any of the region’s community colleges, a shared critical need must be identified by a group of manufacturers. They were committed to identifying their shared top three critical occupations, including cross-analysis of detailed job descriptions, by the end of 2017 to identify areas for at-scale training.

A third committee concentrates on increasing the future workforce’s interest in manufacturing by introducing students to manufacturing opportunities in middle school. This focus is not just upskilling to replace the aging workforce but is also aimed at attracting the local labor force to entry-level jobs—positions that are numerous and difficult to fill but that can also offer advancement opportunities and good wages. The Partnerships with Schools Committee is researching how to increase facility tours and how to target K-12 students, teachers and adult education program participants.

A fourth area is a focus on essential skills (or soft skills), with emphasis on the categories of skills that make an employee ready for a manufacturing job. The committee partnered with convening staff to perform national research and facilitate a soft skills focus group to create manufacturing-specific soft-skill standards. The group identified 10 key soft-skill areas, the underlying competencies for each skill and real-life examples of those skills. The core skills included: ability to work in a manufacturing environment, problem-solving, coping skills, communication skills, efficiency and time management, team mindset, individual responsibility, leadership, customer service and safety orientation. Manufacturers in the partnership are discussing how to integrate this information into their hiring and evaluation processes and how to ensure the standards are meshed into current career and technical education (CTE) course work as well as the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) course work in public schools.

Some of these efforts are already underway at the ISDs. The Texas Education Agency’s Region XIV Education Service Center, which covers a majority of West Central Texas, has a CTE consultant who is actively supporting the manufacturing partnership’s goals related to critical occupations, soft skills and partnerships with schools.

The workforce board’s executive director, Mary Ross, notes, “The CTE consultant has been a great resource to employers because she shares what the public high schools are teaching and why.” She also advises the ISDs on which skills and courses to teach at the secondary level so high school graduates are prepared for specific manufacturing jobs, and she encourages the ISDs to become engaged in the partnership. The consultant is offering an academy for school counselors to help them gain valuable knowledge and experience related to local careers, employer expectations and career counseling.

In addition, the VoTech Center at Rochester serves students from five different ISDs in two rural counties and offers welding and certified nursing assistant training that directly aligns with available job opportunities. Cisco College in Abilene has partnered with the Development Corporation of Abilene to offer scholarships to Abilene and Wylie ISD students for both postsecondary and dual-credit courses that support the manufacturing sector, such as welding, electrical, heating and air conditioning, and industrial maintenance.

A final area of focus for the partnership is Business-to-Business Connections. This committee was formed because participating manufacturers were interested in connecting better on internal hiring and operations best practices, references, equipment knowledge and industry trends. In a recent full partnership quarterly meeting, manufacturers agreed they wanted more time together and that their next quarterly meeting would be hosted by one of them at one of their facilities after hours to spur more informal connections.

Similarly, the education, workforce training and economic development partners also want to connect more. They have been supportive of the development of the manufacturing partnership from its inception and just recently self-formed as a regional Sector Support Steering Committee. The committee does not include business and industry members but instead is a leadership group from critical chambers of commerce, ISDs, colleges, workforce programs and the Workforce Solutions Board. The committee’s objective is to stay tightly coordinated and responsive to the agenda and needs of its target sectors. This will include regular check-ins to take stock of the sector partnership activities and committee goals; formalizing roles and ways to engage; reconciling process questions related to coordinating sector partnership work; considering co-staffing models; and building toward a regional advisory board model for critical sectors to reduce duplication of effort.

Building Trust and Testing Boundaries

The West Central Texas effort represents true testimony to the value of persistent trust-building. The Workforce Solutions Board and its public support partners came together with a healthy curiosity about how to more deliberately engage with industry in a coordinated way, with the hopes it would provide common direction to otherwise independent institutions and programs. They agreed on their target sectors and have supported the development of both partnerships. Less than a year later, they are talking about what regional advisory boards for CTE and higher education might look like, alignment with and across ISDs around curriculum and work experiences, and stronger partnerships with regional economic development corporations. These outcomes will not happen right away, and may not be ultimate solutions, but the increased cross-system dialogue in conjunction with deep, authentic industry engagement is an outcome in itself.

About the Author

Elizabeth Sobel Blum is a senior community development advisor at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.


The Dallas Fed is grateful to the staff of the Next Generation Sector Partnership Community of Practice, including Francie Genz, John Melville and Lindsey Woolsey, for their knowledge-sharing and editing contributions. A special thank-you goes to Mary Ross, Workforce Solutions of West Central Texas, for her time and information about the manufacturing partnership's activities.

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