When Joyce Wilson left her job as city manager last May, she was, by her own admission, a little banged up.
She was often front and center in the controversies and political brawls over the new Triple-A ballpark and the demolition of City Hall.
In her 10 years as El Paso’s first city manager, Wilson had transformed a city government that was set up to accommodate a strong mayor and to protect the city’s operation with layers of bureaucracy.
Wilson and the City Council elected in 2005 set the city on a new course that seemed to culminate with the successful $473-million bond and $50-million ballpark financing election in 2012.
Last spring, it looked like Wilson would be leaving town, something she’d said she didn’t want to do. But things changed. The ballpark caught on and a shake-up at El Paso’s Workforce Solutions Upper Rio Grande last summer opened the door for a new CEO.
Unemployment isn’t her expertise, but running an organization is. Wilson got the job on an interim basis, then the Workforce Solutions board made her appointment permanent in December.
Of course, she intends to leave her mark and wants to raise Workforce’s profile in El Paso.
The name of the state’s privatized employment and training agency for the region has since been changed Workforce Solutions Borderplex.
Now, Wilson wants to change its brand from that of an organization that, yes, serves its traditional clientele, the unemployed, but also offers tailored services to businesses and industries needing people with particular skills.
“We want employers out there to know that we’re a services agency that is available to everyone in the community and that we provide an array of services for businesses at really no cost to them,” she said.
El Paso has a significant gap between the skills of the local workforce and the abilities some employers need, whether they are local companies or out of town.
And then there is El Paso’s per capita income, which is improving, but only matches the national average of 11 years ago.
Solving those problems is a which-comes-first proposition, and Wilson wants Workforce Solutions to have a hand in bridging the gaps in skills, talent and pay as well as the unemployment rate.
Unemployment in El Paso is down, not far off the state and national rates, and things are looking up for the city and the region.
The Downtown ballpark and the Chihuahuas have helped change the atmosphere in El Paso. For her hand in that, Wilson was among the five Baseball Backers honored recently as El Paso Inc.’s El Pasoans of the Year for 2014.
“The moral of the story,” she said then, “is when the window of opportunity opens, you must be prepared to step through it because if you don’t, that window will close and the likelihood of it ever opening again is very rare.”
Wilson, who has a hot hand when it comes to seizing opportunities, sat down with El Paso Inc. to talk about her new job, what’s wrong with massive hiring fairs and why jobless numbers don’t always add up.
Email El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 122 and (915) 630-6622.
Q: Per capita income in El Paso is projected to be $33,667 this year. That’s an increase of $4,446 or 15.2 percent in five years, which isn’t bad. But you have to go back to 2004 to find that level of per capita income nationally and to 2005 in Texas, when the state was 25th in income. What’s it going to take for El Paso to start catching up?
I think one of the things that we need to start doing is to stop exporting the talent that we are creating in the universities because we don’t have some of those jobs to match those talents here. To the extent that we can start bringing employers who are coming for the talent we are producing and not to take talent out of the community, that is the long-term strategy, I think.
The Borderplex Alliance has a group working on an economic strategy. Over the next 90 days, they are going to finalize that report showing where the job and growth opportunities are, both in the immediate term and the longer term, that can transform the economy. That study and those findings will actually help us, because then we can readjust our priorities so that we target people into the jobs that exist and are going to pay well.
Q: Workforce Solutions reported El Paso’s unemployment rate for December as 5.2 percent for the city and 5.7 percent for the region. But the Federal Reserve said it’s 6.1 percent, while the Bureau of Labor Statistics said 6.4 percent. UTEP’s Border Region Modeling Project puts our unemployment rate for 2014 at 7.9 and projects 7.4 percent for this year.
Some of those figures aren’t bad either, but it’s hard to know what to make of the differences. Can you explain them?
The numbers we report for the region are based on the numbers that come in from the Texas Workforce Commission. They don’t go back and adjust them, so ours are not adjusted.
The ones that come in from the Federal Reserve and the Bureau of Labor Statistics are adjusted to correct for things. I don’t technically know the explanation, except that it’s seasonally adjusted. For example, when the federal job numbers came out, there were 250,000 new jobs created nationally. They also went back, adjusted the last month’s or the last quarter’s figures, and moved them upward or downward to adjust for certain factors. We just report the raw data we receive, and that’s why our figures show up slightly lower.
Q: What do you want people to know about Workforce Solutions Borderplex?
We want employers out there to know that we’re a services agency that is available to everyone in the community and that we provide an array of services for businesses at no cost to them. If you’re laid off and you’re on unemployment insurance, you can register through us and we will assist you to find another job. But that’s just a small portion of the services we provide.
For example, Western Refining uses our organization all the time when they’re recruiting for certain jobs. They get thousands of applications and instead of them doing all the work – screening for qualifications – we do that for them and we send them the résumés or applications of people they might want to look at.
We also have companies that come into our centers and we’ll set up a specialized hiring fair. They’ll just set up and the people will come in and will fill our applications for them.
Q: Some of the hiring fairs you have coming up look interesting.
For the newest one, for example, we have 32 employers signed up and over 400 jobs to fill. We’re experimenting. I hope it’s going to work, instead of having the mega hiring fairs we used to have at the civic center where you would have 20,000 people and it would just be huge.
We’re customizing the fairs, taking them to industry clusters and having them around the community, so that they’re not as quite as big. We hope they’ll be more productive because of the people who will be there. The employers are people who are actually recruiting and have vacancies. The people who are coming, the job seekers, are actually interested or have the skills for those types of vacancies.
We have over 400 job openings with these 30 plus employers – like the Reeves County Detention Center, Customs and Border Protection, the city of El Paso Solid Waste is looking for truck drivers. Also a lot of transportation companies like Greyhound, Mesilla Valley Transportation and so on.
Q: A lot of those sound like significant jobs.
They’re good jobs. I’m cautiously excited that it’s going to be a really highly productive job fair this time. I’m hoping each one of these will turn out that way, so each fair and each quarter there will be a different fair and it will be at a different location and will have a different industry sector based on the information we received from the other fairs.
Q: El Paso has seen a pretty good turnaround in the past three years. To what can it be attributed?
I think there are several factors. One, the economy in general is rebounding from the financial crisis of 2009 and 2010, which really hit everyone as it related to employment and economic activity. Second, I think there’s been a very concerted and successful effort on the part of a bunch of different players, including the Borderplex Alliance, the city and the chambers. They’re all working much more cohesively and collectively to really build the economy. I think we’re really starting to see the results of that.
Q: You became interim CEO at Workforce Solutions in July 2014 and were named permanent CEO in December. What changes have you made?
The first thing I did was look at how the board staff was set up. The staff is very small compared to the organization as a whole, because most of our services, in fact all of our direct services, are provided by contractors and vendors. So, we oversee the service delivery and the contracts, and we focus on special initiatives.
Q: Who are the contractors and what do they do?
We have a contractor, Manpower Services, that manages our businesses service unit. That group really goes out and works with employers, organizes the job fairs and does the rapid response services to employers.
Then we have SERCO, which is a services agency with a national presence, and they run the operations at all of our eight job centers.
Our third major contractor is the YWCA. It oversees our child care services and subsidies, which is the largest component of our budget. It’s $20-plus million a year.
Q: Workforce Solutions Borderplex is a private, non-profit corporation, and this whole operation of finding people jobs and running the organization has been privatized by the state.
Yes, to third-party services. Actually, that was sort of the mission of the Texas Workforce Commission by creating local boards, because they basically said you can’t provide the services directly so we could not build up a big bureaucracy.
Right now, we have a very lean staff. We have about 45 positions that are the board staff. That includes a finance agency, a procurement office and information technology, which manages all of the technology for the entire system.
Q: What does the local Workforce board do?
We manage. We oversee the contracts we have with training providers. We have training providers at El Paso Community College and the technical schools, like Western Tech, Vista, Southwest University and International Trucking.
We probably have two dozen training-provider contracts for individuals who are displaced or who are out of work and need to be skilled or need to be trained to compete for jobs. We actually put them into training and subsidize almost all of it. In some instances, depending on their economic status, once they’re completed their training, the training providers work to help get them get placed.
Q: There was a shakeup before you got here that actually opened up this position. A few people left, as I recall. Have there been any reports or anything else that came out of it?
There’s nothing that came out of it that showed there were any illegal activities or wrongdoing. The issues that surfaced were more internal – like management philosophy and board management relations. There was an audit in regards to a lack of spend-down in a certain category. The money had to go back to the state.
That triggered some concern because the board was not aware of it. There are some categories of funds that, if you don’t have the clients and you’re not spending as fast as you should be, the state will reallocate and reprogram the money to other agencies that are actually overspending and could use more money.
We have been the recipient of that in some areas, particularly child care, because we have more of a population that is eligible for child care subsidies and child care services than we have funding for. We always have a waiting list.
Q: How does your child care assistance work? Who’s eligible?
Typically, individuals are eligible based on income. If you are a teen parent, and you’re in school and not working, then you are probably eligible to receive child care services. If you are working part time and want to work full time but really can’t because you don’t have daycare, then you are eligible. If you’re in school or if you have been laid off and you are going through training to develop skills elsewhere, then you are eligible.
Anyone who is interested and wants to know if they’re eligible should contact the YWCA.
Q: How many parents are receiving child care services through Workforce here?
There’s a lag in our report. From October 2012 to December 2013, we had 10,000 children who were served daily. We also have some new initiatives coming from the state.
Q: At any given time, how many employers are you all working with?
I would say dozens at any time. I would say right now about 10 that we’re actively working with to apply for some type of skill development fund and that’s in collaboration with the community college. We also had 23 job fairs in November and 28 in December.
Q: Is there a skill gap here – employers looking for highly skilled workers they can’t find?
There are some areas. For example, the health care cluster, where there are some gaps and just more jobs than there are people of that skill. We’re working with Tenet and the Sierra Providence Health Network to start anticipating their growth and needs for the new hospital they’re constructing.
Q: The Workforce Solutions Borderplex report for 2014 says 38,254 job seekers found jobs last year. Does the agency take credit for them?
Yes. Those are numbers we are tracking in our system. We have either helped directly or passively. If you have registered in our system, and we matched you with an employer who is also registered in our system and they’ve hired you, we are taking credit.
Q: Do veterans have a particularly hard time finding jobs when they get out of the military?
You know, some of the big challenges you have are the skills. They get a lot of technical training and a lot of good skill development in the military. The key is finding civilian job opportunities that align with those skills.
Q: You have 5,445 veterans listed as participants and 3,674 placed for the latest reporting period. Does that represent the number of unemployed vets in this area?
Well, I don’t know if they’re actually unemployed. They’re registered in our system, and that means they’re looking for a job. It doesn’t mean they don’t have a job. All I know is of those who self-identified as veterans, we assisted 67 percent of them by finding a job that they obviously are interested in or liked.