When Joyce Wilson applied for the job of El Paso’s first city manager after voters decided to give up the city’s strong mayor form of government in 2004, she immediately stood out from the long list of applicants.
She had a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and was the chief operating officer of Arlington County in Virginia.
With a newly elected progressive City Council that included Beto O’Rourke, Susie Byrd, Steve Ortega and Mayor John Cook who were ready to get the city moving, Wilson was able to help that happen by reorganizing El Paso’s city government and showing the way.
Her 10-year tenure, three times longer than average for a city manager in the U.S., gave her and the council time to make progress on many fronts, including Downtown and a new kind of development, Smart Growth.
Then came the $473 million Quality of Life bond election in 2012 and a $50 million ballot item for a new ballpark that more than 60% of voters supported, which led to controversy and big changes Downtown and around town.
El Paso is not the city it was in 2004, and many have said Wilson deserves much of the credit. She stepped down as city manager in 2014 to take the CEO position at Workforce Solutions Borderplex.
Now, at 67 and six years later, she’s retiring – sort of.
She plans to keep her hand in a number of projects and boards, including chairmanship of the Camino Real Regional Mobility Authority to which she was appointed by the governor.
“I feel like I’ve really made a difference and had an impact, and I’m really proud of that,” Wilson said. “Professionally, I did my best work here in El Paso in the last 16 years.
“I did a lot of good work over my career, and I’ve left my mark.”
Cook, who was mayor for eight years and a city representative for six, would agree.
“She’s a really good leader,” he said. “We didn’t always agree 100% while I was mayor. But overall, she made sure that the vision the council had and the objectives we gave to complete, she got them done.
“That’s what you want in a city manager or someone leading workforce development.”
Wilson sat down with El Paso Inc. last week and talked about her plans to continue mentoring up and coming women, the business of finding jobs for people and the city’s protracted problems in court over the controversial arena project.
Q: Well, the first question, of course, is what will you do after your March 1 retirement? Take a big vacation?
I would like to stay engaged in some things. I’m on some boards and things that I want to see through my terms. I’m on the Regional Mobility Authority board and I’m really enjoying it. If it’s renewed, I’ll probably want to do that because there are some things I want to do as chair of that board.
Q: It sounds like you’ll be staying here.
But I’m not going to work. I plan to relax. I’m going to travel. I have a commitment here at the Workforce board for some limited consulting as needed. Then I have a few boards that will keep me active.
Q: Don’t you have a residence in Florida?
I do have a second home in Florida. I’ve had it for a while, a condominium. I want to spend more time there, so I’ll divide my time up based on my other obligations.
But I’m not leaving El Paso. I’ve been here for 16 years. It’s probably the longest I’ve ever lived in any one place in my adult life. And I have a huge connection with a network here and friends and things that I’m engaged in. So I’m not ready to make that dramatic of a change.
But it’s fun to go visit. All my family’s on the East Coast and my daughter and grandchildren live outside of Atlanta. So it’s certainly much closer to them.
Q: Got any hobbies that you always wanted to take up?
I don’t. But I’m sure there are some things that I would like to experiment with. I know I’m going to totally redo my workout routine because I don’t want to get up and do spin classes at 5 o’clock in the morning anymore.
Q: With everything else, you do spin classes?
Yes. I get up really early, which means I have to go to bed super early, and I want to not have to do that anymore.
I actually want to take dance lessons. So, you know, they have these classes where you can learn all the dances, and it’s like exercise, too. I have some friends who do that.
And then, I have a lot of friends that are part of the ALI, the Adult Learning Institute at Newtown. So I probably will take a couple of classes on some things I know nothing about, like Russian philosophy, where I really have to kind of like stretch.
Q: Anything else you want to do – or don’t?
I’m involved in some mentorship. I mean, I actually am getting involved in some things that have kind of cropped up, like the Texas Women’s Leadership Institute that a group of former city managers and public policy experts have organized to help prepare and promote women for city management jobs.
I was asked to be a part of that, like a board, to create it. I did a couple presentations just a couple of weeks ago and really enjoyed it because there were a lot of exciting young women. A couple of them were actually talking to headhunters and they were getting ready to interview.
Then there’s a mentorship group here of professional women that look at emerging women leaders in the region. We meet every other month or so for lunch as a group. Then we do individual mentorship.
I feel like I’ve helped develop professional women in this region. Look at Leila Melendez here at Workforce. She also worked for me at City Hall, and then here for five years. And now she’s going to be in charge. So that’s one of my life success stories. And then, look at Carmen Arrieta-Candelaria at EPISD and Dionne Mack, who’s an El Paso deputy city manager now.
Q: In the field of city management and city managers, it seems the people at the top are overwhelmingly male.
Yes. Across the country.
Q: Why is that?
I don’t know why, but it’s like that everywhere. It’s not just city management. It’s every industry. For a while, women had made some inroads, and then I don’t know what happened.
Q: Today, El Paso seems to be a changed city compared with a decade ago. What do you see today, and what do you see on the city’s horizon?
El Paso has come into its own. They consider us an emerging midsize city. If you look around the country, large cities have become expensive to live in and people are looking for alternatives. For one thing, you have technology, and you can work remotely from anywhere today.
The whole concept of quality of life’s a little bit different now. And I think El Paso is really a good candidate for that midsize city. It’s got a lot of amenities. It’s got a good quality of life. It’s affordable geographically. It’s not positioned too badly. I mean, you’re close to the mountains, you’re close to Mexico, you’re not far from California. So you can get to different places pretty quickly.
Q: But only if you don’t mind getting up early and stopping someplace first if you’re flying out of El Paso International Airport.
I think our challenge is still air service, and I don’t know how you fix that because that industry is not interested. Right now, I think there’s only one flight that’s nonstop to Austin. It’s really ridiculous that we don’t have more than that.
It’s the state capital. There’s so many things that we need to do there. But I had to go there and had to fly through Dallas. It’s insane. I wish we could figure that out.
Q: Workforce Solutions Borderplex reported helping 19,000 people find jobs last year, over 4,000 businesses find employees and 22,000 soldiers transition into civilian jobs. This is a hard question to ask because it’s going to be a long answer. But how does Workforce do that?
I’ll try to keep it short. We do several things. One, we have what we call Work in Texas, which is a database where job seekers can enter their information and their resume. Then businesses can enter their jobs and it’s a matching thing, like Indeed.com.
It’s a statewide database focused on helping people who are in transition, who are out of work, who have barriers to employment to either get skills training and development, or work-based experience to get them into the workforce and then get a job permanently.
It’s also available to businesses looking for talent, no matter what the business is. If they’re looking for employees or talent, they can use our resources for free because we are an agency that receives state and federal funding.
We also have companies that come into our career centers all the time and set up and recruit. There are six of them in this area. We also have a mobile van.
Businesses can also go to any of our centers and work with our business services team and schedule a job fair that we’ll promote. We’ll say “Spectrum, we’ll be at north loop career center on this date all day.”
Q: How well do those events work and how do people hear about them?
If a company’s hiring, we promote that on TV, through our search engine and database. Sometimes we’ll get several hundred job seekers to come in, and there’s actually been pretty good outcomes.
Q: So is all that the same as the agency does statewide or have you made changes in the operation of this system here?
All of the workforce boards across the state do similar things. We’ve made some adjustments here to be more strategic and targeting. We used to do this one big hiring fair at the civic center, and it was totally chaotic because it was too big and too general. A lot of businesses would go in, and they would really have a hard time finding the right talent.
So we did away with that and decided to try doing quarterly industry-targeted career hiring fairs. If it was construction or retail or health care, health sciences or business and financial services, we target it so that people would know that these are the companies that are going to be there and these are the types of jobs they’re looking for.
Q: What’s needed to improve the employment market here in El Paso? We have a big problem with young people getting their diploma or degree and leaving town.
I have these issues with kids leaving. It’s ironic that you bring that up because Congresswoman Escobar is hosting an event this month. It’s El Paso 2.0, and it’s a forum to talk about where we go with our next level of economic development that really focuses on improving wages.
STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) jobs are the jobs with the high wages. We just put together some data on it. The average wage of a STEM job is $30 an hour. The average wage of a non-STEM job is $16 an hour. But the percentage of STEM jobs that we’re creating in relation to non-STEM jobs has actually declined.
Q: It’s declined?
Yes, it’s slightly less than 3%, so 97% of the jobs we’re creating here are non-STEM versus 3% that are STEM field jobs. That’s down from a high of 4%, and we’re creating a lot of jobs here. Our unemployment rate is around 3.6%, extremely low.
So the numbers of jobs we’re creating are high, and they’re not bad jobs. But when you look at wages, worker productivity and the formula, productivity is actually declining because the percentage of jobs in the lower wage categories is where there’s more growth.
Q: Overall, what do you think of the business climate here?
We’ve done a really good job here of diversifying our business environment. We really focused on the business and financial services. We’ve started to focus more on technology. Certainly with the Paul Foster School of Medicine, the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, the school of dentistry, and the Medical Center of the Americas. That’s really transforming the whole health sciences field. Now you have aerospace and defense with some of UTEP’s work.
Q: What needs to happen now?
Part of it is how do we capitalize on those things and commercialize those things so that we’re creating the STEM jobs here.
Q: Who needs to take a hold of this and drive it?
I think all of us as a region – The Borderplex Alliance.
Q: Do we need a big community meeting to deal with this?
Well, we did that here a long time ago, and that’s how you got the school of medicine and the Medical Center of the Americas and some of the other things that we’ve got here now.
We just need to say, OK, unemployment’s really low, and our economy’s growing. We’ve made some really great strategic investments in this region, and now we’re very competitive as a midsized city. It’s time we start looking at some industry sectors that maybe we haven’t focused on as much as we should have.
We’ve not done a lot with defense and aerospace in terms of the commercial aspect of that, for instance. Are there some opportunities that we should be taking advantage of here that we’re not?
I mean, we’ve got Fort Bliss and we’ve got Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin. Maybe we should look at this and ask if there isn’t some low hanging fruit? Nuggets of opportunity that we should take advantage of, and start targeting your efforts.
Then maybe there’s another sector to look at, say in health sciences that we don’t have now.
Q: These sound like great ideas. Who should do it?
The city and county should get together and develop a strategy and determine who should take the lead. They can say, OK, we’ll take the lead on this and maybe the MCA takes the lead on something in the health sector. And then maybe we say Borderplex Alliance, your job is this.
There are a lot of resources here. Let’s pull them all together, but let’s target some stuff that would really impact the region substantially in terms of changing the trajectory with regard to the percentage of jobs that are in this upper quartile.
Q: Then what?
Adjust some of our educational programs and just support these things because we know we have growth here. On the other end, we need to get businesses that are going to be willing to pay the wages that are competitive for those industries. You know, people are leaving here because they’re not paying what other places are paying.
We’re really still on the low end of the spectrum even though we make a million excuses as to why. We can’t continue to do that. You’re competing with industry and these people are investing in education to get these skills, and they’re going to go where the dollars are.
Continued from the print edition:
Q: How does Workforce Solutions Borderplex help veterans looking for civilian jobs?
We do Red, White and You events for veterans and military transitioning soldiers. That’s a statewide event done in November in conjunction with Veterans Week. That’s our biggest event. Here, we’ll have nearly a hundred employers and several hundred veterans. One year, we had almost 900 job seekers.
Q: How do vets tend to work out?
There’s a propensity right now to hire veterans and transitioning soldiers because they make really great employees.
Q: What about retail workers and big-box store employees who are losing jobs these days as stores go out of business?
There are a lot of people who’ve been displaced as a result of that. So we’ve worked with those groups of employees to put them into alternative training to get them into kind of another field that’s a growing field because the traditional retail field is changing.
Q: Do you have an example?
Well, there was an insurance company that came in and opened up and needed some back-office staffing. We took them through a training and then the company hired them.
We also do paid-work experience where we’ll put people in jobs where we’ll actually underwrite the price for a while. It’s like a probationary period, but the idea is that if they’re successful, the business would then take them on permanently.
Q: Do you work with schools?
We go into schools and introduce young people to the kinds of careers and the businesses and jobs that are in our region so they understand what opportunities are here and in the El Paso region. That’s so they don’t necessarily feel like they need to leave to like find a career.
Q: Do kids hear good things about the trade jobs? Seems like a tough sell. Hey, you could be a plumber!
One of the challenges has been that there was always a perception that minorities were being targeted for blue-collar, trade-type jobs. And so there was a lot of pushback against that.
So there’s more direction, like college prep, everything was college prep, which is not bad because you should be educated to be college-ready if you want to go to college. But the trades are really suffering.
Electricians, plumbers, apprenticeships, these industrial trades, the technology trades – they’re all suffering. That’s because people aren’t really interested in those careers because they’re being focused into four-year degrees.
At the same time, there is a huge demand for these jobs. So much so that some states, like Georgia, actually initiated a program that if you went into certain trades where there was a critical shortage of talent, they would actually pay for you to go through their technical schools.
Q: What are some of the industries that have high growth potential that you’d like to see cultivated in El Paso?
Alternative energy is a high demand, high growth industry cluster. And I think that the traditional energy companies are going to start really redirecting some of their resources to develop that as part of their portfolio, instead of either oil or gas because some are going to grow and some are going to decline.
Most of the companies, like utilities, just migrated away because natural gas was a cheaper and cleaner alternative. But why weren’t those companies repositioning themselves and the state repositioning itself to take advantage of the next generation of opportunity?
We have really failed nationally to anticipate where the growth will be. We’re starting to see some of it. All of a sudden, General Motors is building a huge plant in the Detroit area for driverless electric cars. I mean, they know that this is happening.
You’ve got to start making those investments, research and development, those types of things. But you also have to start preparing your labor force for that. What kind of skills are they going to need? What kind of credentials are they going to need? At the high school level, we should start looking at what students need.
She should come out of high school with a credential, a marketable skill that would allow her to go into the workplace immediately and do meaningful work and earn a good wage or have two years of college credit.
You can go get a four-year degree, but if you’re a craftsman, it’s OK to be an electrician or a plumber, then go get a business degree and run your own business and be an entrepreneur. You’re always going to need plumbers and electricians. You’re going to always have to build, even though you’re doing everything 3D now, you’re going to need people to know how to do that.
Take drones. A lot of companies, even contractors are saying we need people who know how to like fly drones because they go out and plot.
Q: You sound like the next secretary of labor.
Yeah. I actually took a drone technology class just so I would understand it a little bit. Now a drone can go out into farm fields and help you determine how much water certain crops need. That’s how sophisticated this technology is.
But we’re not even really talking about this. We’re talking about ridiculous stuff from 20 and 30 years ago instead of really focusing on the future, really focusing on it. Why, I don’t know. We should be looking at investing in workforce development and targeting the jobs we really need.
Q: You became El Paso’s first city manager in 2004. There were a lot of organizational issues you had to address. Where do you think the city of El Paso is now organizationally? Are there more changes needed within the city?
You know, I have been very careful and deliberate in terms of disengaging with city government since I left as city manager. The thing I do feel really good about is the stability of city management. My tenure was 10 years. My successor now has been there for six years. That is good.
Having stability in the city manager position is a good sign because, now, you don’t hear a lot about the council wanting to make a change. You don’t even hear that anymore, which is good.
People, I think, have embraced the fact that having a city manager is actually not a bad thing. Having four-year council terms is not a bad thing because it provides stability in management and oversight of basic operations.
What about taxes? They’ve gone up a lot.
I am always in awe of how much taxes they’ve raised because when we were there, we tried to raise taxes and there was a group of citizens that was, like, rabid about taxes. So the council was really hard-pressed to do that.
The fact that they’ve actually adjusted revenues, I think, is good because it helps them to do more things. It’ll be interesting to see what the cap now that was imposed by the state, how the organization’s going to have to react to that.
Q: What about the 2012 bond projects?
I’m probably going to regret saying anything, but I do think that what’s happening with the arena is a really good demonstration of what happens when you have weak political leadership versus strong political leadership. When we did the ballpark, I mean, it was brutal.
Tearing down City Hall was brutal. They sued us. But we stayed on message, and the council held together. Once they made the decision to do it, they held together – even Mayor Cook, to his credit. He didn’t support tearing down City Hall. But once the decision was made, he was behind it, and he wanted to make sure it was successful.
He also wanted to make sure that the controversy didn’t jeopardize the quality of life bond projects, which it didn’t. I mean, it was approved by, like, 70%.
Q: It’s gotten pretty controversial since, though.
I’m not sure why these lawsuits have been allowed to drag out the way they have. At this point, they’re frivolous, some of them.
I don’t know why we’re not messaging this a little differently because the language for that bond project was approved by the Texas attorney general. When we took the language there, we had to certify to them that that facility did not have a professional sports tenant.
And nobody’s talking about that. I mean, they’re saying we lied. We didn’t lie to anybody. Events included amateur sports. If we wanted to get the NCAA, that was OK.
But we had to certify it for one reason and one reason only because you can’t use GO (government obligation) bonds supported by property tax for a professional sports arena.
Q: And that’s why we have a ballpark being paid for with hotel occupancy taxes.
That’s right. But they have totally twisted it, and no one’s really communicating that.
That’s why the attorney general has been on the city’s side throughout all these lawsuits, saying we certified the language, and you intended to include sporting events, but you couldn’t have a tenant. You couldn’t build this for a tenant. And if you were going to do that, you would probably have to refinance the whole thing somehow down the road.
That wasn’t even in our sights when we did it. It was a multipurpose event and entertainment center.
Q: So Max Grossman has fought this thing and really slowed things down for the city.
And he has misrepresented it, but no one on the other side has communicated that. The failure is we’re not messaging an alternative message as strongly as we should to clarify that.
And nobody is really talking about all of the historic properties that have been preserved in this Downtown for hotels. Do you know how many hotels have been built? You’ve got the Indigo. You’ve got Bassett Tower. You’ve got the Stanton House. You’ve got the Paso Del Norte. You’ve got Paul Foster’s Plaza Hotel and Jim Scherr’s built the new Marriott.
Six hotels. They’re all built strategically and these folks invested hundreds of millions of dollars because that arena project was supposed to drive activity in Downtown. And nobody’s even talking about that.
For the life of me, I don’t know why this group of hoteliers doesn’t get together and file a countersuit against Max Grossman and these other people for jeopardizing their economic livelihood and investments with this nonsense.
It’s also jeopardized other investment that’s substantial and that was relying on this project.
Q: Now, of course, the problem is the cost will be more. Mayor Dee Margo has said it could go from $180 million to as much as $250 million.
And eight years later. It was supposed to have been done by now.
Q: On another development issue, El Paso has a problem with old neighborhoods hollowing out, with no families with kids moving in and a lot of people retiring in place. Residential values are going down and schools being closed while families are moving to the fringes. No one has an answer. But I know the neighborhoods where I grew up in Dallas have been leveled, redeveloped and recreated. What do you think should happen here?
It’s a tough nut to crack. When John Cook was mayor for those eight years, they did Smart Growth and put policies in place that were designed to discourage all that sprawl. The next council eroded that.
As long as it’s cheaper to buy land and build from scratch on the fringes, it’s going to be a tough issue for El Paso to address. The only thing you can do is if you have some areas that are really declining and a developer wants to come in, buy people out and then just level everything and redevelop from the ground up.
Some areas may eventually become conducive to that. Right now, we don’t have traffic congestion like other cities have, so people aren’t trying to move into town. But when they were building the loop, I was shocked at the number of people who sold their houses out near Transmountain and Artcraft and moved closer in because they couldn’t stand the traffic.
That’s what it’s going to take.
This story was updated 11 a.m. Feb. 17 to correct the dollar amount of the ballpark ballot item and the percentage of voters who approved it.