Brain drain, lack of soft skills hinders job growth
January 14, 2019
Texas Governor Greg Abbott touts that the State of Texas has the 10th largest economy in the world due to having unparalleled job creation and strong growth of metropolitan areas such as Dallas-Fort Worth, Austin-San Antonio and the Houston area. Even smaller cities such as New Braunfels, Bryan-College Station and Tyler have grown significantly in recent years.
Northeast Texas, however, does not seem to share the same success that Frisco has, which is currently the fastest growing city in the U.S. This is due to a lack of workers with training or postsecondary education as well as a lack of jobs or incentives for college graduates to return or remain in Texarkana.
“I’m not sure a talented college graduate is going to move back and start their business here in Texarkana when they can’t hire the people they need to do their work,” said Lisa Thompson, Public Information Officer for Texarkana, Texas. “We have a good quality of life, good schools and a nice downtown, but it really comes down to people [wanting] to know that they can make money, provide for their family and have a secure way of life. If the workforce is not there and we are not investing in our communities the way we should be, then we know it is hard to attract these businesses or even college graduates to come back and start here.”
This “brain drain” phenomenon has prevented Texarkana from attracting college graduates or retaining those who were raised in the city. However, Texarkana’s local colleges remain dedicated to training workers for careers available in the local region as the number of graduates that become employed in Texarkana increase.
“We are beginning to see engineering graduates from [Texas A&M—Texarkana] who are getting jobs locally, and that is really a positive,” said Jerry Sparks, Economic Developer for Texarkana, Texas. “For years, our locally-trained nurses have been able to get local employment, but now we are seeing a step with some of those trained professionals who are getting local jobs. That helps all the way around because those people are less likely to move [since] they started their lives in this area.”
Despite their best efforts and good intentions, Northeast Texas and Southwest Arkansas trail the rest of Texas and Arkansas in the percentage of the population with a higher education credential. This lack of college graduates and those with graduate degrees will continue to hinder the economy of the Texarkana region as the number of jobs requiring higher education increase.
“We trail the rest of the nation [in the percentage of the population that have higher education credentials]. That’s bad in a lot of ways,” former Texarkana College President James Henry Russell said. “It doesn’t mean that our people are bad, in fact, they’ll outwork [others] and learn. However, it’s really important that we do a better job working with our high school students, and let them see a path to a certificate or degree that’s going to lead to a better paying job. Not only will it help that student and help their family, but it will also help the region get new businesses to come and existing businesses to expand.”
This lack of workers with higher education combined with the brain drain of the few college graduates has been what some claim to be the main reasons why growth in the region has been slow or stagnant.
“When companies are looking for a place to locate, a lot of times they don’t come and look in person. They look on the Internet and at data and demographics, and what they’re seeing is that we don’t have a very highly-skilled workforce in [the region],” Russell said. “I think [this is] one of the reasons we haven’t seen a lot of growth in the Texarkana area and we’ve been really flat for the past decade or two.”
To counteract this, Texarkana College is participating in a statewide initiative called “60 x 30 Texas” whose goal is to increase the percentage of Texans ages 25-34 with a higher education credential to 60 percent by the year 2030.
“That’s not just a made up number. The studies are showing that for the type of jobs we want in Texas by the year 2030, 60 percent of those jobs are going to require some type of college training. Aligning to that, we’re looking at the jobs of the future, and we’re trying to create our academic and workforce paths to meet that,” Russell said. “[The state and educators do not want] you [to] get a degree that’s wasted or you can’t find a job. One thing we want to do here is if we train you on something, we really want you to stay in this area, and we would like for you to be able to find a job here.”
Yet, as technology develops, some jobs will become obsolete while others will be created that society has no knowledge of today. Finding the balance between training for a career available now or possibly available in the future has proven yet another challenge to properly training the local workforce.
“When you ask the question whether you would like to have a workforce prepared for the future or for today, most people will say the future. [Most people] would say the future, but we have the jobs today, so it is always a balance,” Sparks said. “As we grow as a community, we have to be able to be flexible enough to understand the sophistication of maintaining certain jobs that will always be needed, but we will also need the [careers of the future].”
Texas A&M—Texarkana’s certificate programs have been specifically created to grant the workforce the training they need for certain jobs in the area. Meetings with local CEOs about the educational needs of the workforce have allowed local colleges to take direct action from this advice.
“We have our Division of Continuing Education and Community Development. Instead of coming to college for a degree, you can come back to the university and take some short courses leading to certifications that help you in your job. That’s really important for the development of Texarkana and the economy because it means we can provide continuing and specialized education that people already in the workforce need,” TAMU-T President Dr. Emily Cutrer said. “We all learn something in college, and when we get out, you use it for awhile but then things change, so you need to have that continuing education to keep you up to date and on top of your field.”
However, some city officials claim that obtaining the training is not as difficult as ensuring that the workforce has basic “soft skills” that employers desire employees to have.
“We can teach someone to weld or build, but [employers] need people who can show up on time, have proper grooming and can understand the structures of that organization,” Thompson said. “Manufacturers are telling the community colleges that [they] need to help with soft skills preparation.”
Many educational leaders also affirm that soft skills are to blame for the termination of workers and are taking steps to build soft skills in their students.
“The number one reason why employees are terminated in our area is not due to lack of skill, [but rather] it is related to a soft skill issue [such as] passing a drug test, showing up on time, dressing appropriately, and [others],” Russell said. “We are developing an internal motto at TC: ‘Let us fire an employee before you have to.’ We require our students to clock in, dress appropriately, and we are adding a voluntary drug testing program where a student will test at the start of the semester, randomly during, and at the end. This record will show the future employer that, for the past year, they showed up on time, dressed appropriately, and are drug-free. If they can do that for us, chances are they will [work] for the employer as well [as achieve mastery] of the skill program they are in.”
The opening of the Betty and Buddy Ledwell Workforce Training Center at Texarkana College shows a growing effort by local colleges, city governments and REDI to provide training and soft skills to the workforce.
“This new facility will allow us to not only expand the number of students we can train in high need areas for our community, but it also allows us more space to bring in the latest and greatest equipment that industry wants our students to know how to use,” Russell said. “This facility has room and the design to allow for 21st century teaching in a clean and safe environment.”
Local officials, however, emphasize the lack of programs that assist high schoolers to transition to college and generate thoughts about an eventual career.
“[Educational institutions] have to move from college age down, and even down from high school so that we can [connect students to careers] sooner and retain [students],” Sparks said. “Students [are exposed] to [municipal careers], but they don’t see manufacturing, and they only see a little bit of law and finance and other careers.”
Local businesses have also noticed a lack of experience, work ethic and soft skills in those graduating from college. Texarkana has programs to train these individuals, but not enough people know about these opportunities. Most corporations look for motivation and experience when hiring their employees.
“I’m responsible for hiring young engineers,” said Genie Clem, Human Resource Generalist at Graphic Packaging. “We’re looking for those students who have had previous internships or at least two years of engineering classes. On the production side, we do like our employees to have several years of any production experience and to have a good job history. Soft skills in the workforce in something the workforce is currently missing.
Texarkana College believes that its Dual Credit program at local high schools is one of many necessary programs to bridge this gap as the college hopes that more students will participate.
“I am hoping that we have more students graduate from high school with at least 30 hours of Dual Credit from Texarkana College. Right now we’re doing a pretty good job of that with our middle class and up students, but [they] are probably going to college anyway. I really want to push that deeper, and make sure that any student that has the academic or workforce ability by their junior year of high school [to take] a few hours,” Russell said. “If a student will graduate from high school with just six hours of college credit, the chances of them going to college and being successful dramatically goes up. If we can get more students in high school [to take college hours] while in high school, it’s not near as scary.”
Local colleges, school districts and employers are working on ways to coordinate among themselves to create internships programs and increase “experiential learning” as internship programs are gaining popularity nationwide.
“We think internships are really important for our students [since] it gives you a chance to see if you really like the kind of job your thinking about going into, and it also gives you an opportunity work with a prospective employer. You both get to try each other out. I hear from people in the community all the time that they really like having our students as interns,” Cutrer said. “One of the things we expect to see for every student before they graduate is that they have had at least one course that really emphasizes experiential learning [in some way].”
Not only are there educational challenges to going to college, but family and financial issues also plague students graduating high school as the pressure gives the students little time, resources or incentive to pursue a higher education credential.
“I think a lot of high school students would be surprised how many of their fellow students are already having to take care of younger brothers and sisters, parents, grandparents or they’re very close to being on their own,” Russell said. “A lot of them are worried about food everyday. You’d even be surprised how many Texas High students are worried about where they sleep some nights.”
Russell emphasizes that the atmosphere of Texarkana College is welcoming, willing and able to assist these students as they balance these issues with pursuing a postsecondary education that will improve their lives.
“We’ve got caring people in enrollment services and our faculty understands who our students are. More importantly, we like who our students are. I say a lot of times our students wear uniforms to school: they wear Burger King uniforms, they wear McDonald’s uniforms, they wear UPS uniforms,” Russell said. “Our students work. ”
Despite these various obstacles, local officials, REDI and local colleges are optimistic that improved education will lead to more jobs and businesses moving to the Texarkana area.
“In all of the efforts we are doing, I want [young people] to want to live in Texarkana after they graduate college,” REDI board member Dean Barry said. “I’m tired of seeing my grandkids and everybody else move to Dallas. We need them here. We need that [cooperation] to make this work as far as what we are doing, and I think we can make it work.”