October 29, 2020

Pandemic drives changes to Austin worker training plan



a person standing in front of a building: The coronavirus pandemic has slammed the Austin-area economy, hitting the local leisure and hospitality sector particularly hard. A new effort to provide rapid new job training through remote learning is being viewed as a means of helping many displaced workers acquire the skills to get good jobs. [LOLA GOMEZ/AMERICAN-STATESMAN/FILE]


© Provided by Austin American-Statesman
The coronavirus pandemic has slammed the Austin-area economy, hitting the local leisure and hospitality sector particularly hard. A new effort to provide rapid new job training through remote learning is being viewed as a means of helping many displaced workers acquire the skills to get good jobs. [LOLA GOMEZ/AMERICAN-STATESMAN/FILE]

When a comprehensive workforce training plan for the Austin area was unveiled by community leaders in 2017, the unemployment rate was hovering around 3% and a major aim was simply to help local people get good jobs and avoid being left behind amid the booming economy.

Three years and the start of a global pandemic later, the regional business climate has taken a sharp turn for the worse.

Unemployment in the Austin metro area is at a seasonally adjusted 5.4% — after spiking to a 30-year high of 12% in April — and about 70,000 local people are out of work, double the typical monthly average.

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But the 2017 workforce training plan, updated for the era of social distancing, has undergone something of a transformation as well — and it’s now being viewed as a potential lifeline to help the region recover from the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

“The new part (of the plan) is rapid retraining in a digital environment,” said Tamara Atkinson, executive director of Workforce Solutions Capital Area. “We want to provide pathways out of poverty for those impacted workers in our community” who lost jobs because of the pandemic.

The training will provide recipients with the expertise needed for employment in some of the same fast-growing sectors targeted under the 2017 plan, such as information technology, health care and advanced manufacturing. But the emphasis will be on doing so safely and quickly through technology-enabled remote learning.

If the effort is fully funded, it will reach “thousands of workers (and) be able to help them get the skills so that they can either move back into their industries of displacement or move to other industries that may be more resilient coming out of our economic crisis,” said Atkinson, whose agency covers Travis County and helped devise and implement the original plan, called the Austin Metro Area Master Community Workforce Plan.

The updated effort requires resources, however.

The city of Austin and Travis County have earmarked about $3.2 million combined to help with the initial phase, which is being designed to provide services and technology infrastructure for several hundred local people to receive safe, high-quality training at no cost. The training would come through Austin Community College and other entities that offer postsecondary education, and the program includes related support like stipends, transportation and child care as needed.

But it will take about $67 million more to scale the plan up to reach thousands of additional local people who have lost jobs amid the pandemic, according to Workforce Solutions Capital Area.

Sources for that money have not yet been secured, but Workforce Solutions said it possibly could come from a future federal stimulus program or state and local resources.

The updated plan will be officially unveiled Sept. 30, during a webcast event that will involve state and local elected officials as well as a number of area business leaders.

Jon Hockenyos, president of Austin-based economic analysis firm TXP Inc., said a program to provide rapid and remote retraining for workers during the ongoing pandemic has merit, particularly because some hard-hit sectors, such as leisure and hospitality, aren’t likely to revive anytime soon.

“What it does is give people who might have been in those (industries) other options,” said Hockenyos, who wasn’t involved in crafting the updated plan or familiar with its details. “Demand (for workers in such sectors) may never get back to where it was, or it could take years to get back.”

Restaurants, bars, hotels and other hospitality-related businesses in the Austin metro area shed a total of nearly 70,000 jobs in March and April amid the initial wave of the pandemic. They’ve added back only about half that amount since then, unlike employers in many other sectors that have rehired at much higher rates.

The initial 2017 workforce training plan aimed to lift 10,000 local people out of poverty by the end of 2021, by providing them with the skills to obtain good jobs paying more than $40,000 annually.

Atkinson said the effort to achieve the goal was on track prior to the pandemic. Now that the economic crisis has laid bare the necessity of specialized job skills, however, she said the community has an opportunity to do even more.

The updated plan “will be focusing on COVID-impacted workers, particularly those workers that are coming from (industries in which) their wages were lower to begin with,” she said. “And from our data, we will be focusing on (workers in) those industries that are not likely to return, or to return at the same levels and provide those jobs again.”

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