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New Program Transforms Workforce Development in San Antonio

March 21, 2024

At a Glance

In what could be a model for other cities, a local workforce development initiative in San Antonio engages a network of partners to put workers on pathways to quality jobs. 

Contributors
Erica Acevedo Director
Caroline Thrun Senior Manager
Practices & Centers

When leaders from the public, private, and nonprofit sectors work together, it’s possible to begin breaking down systemic barriers that limit access to economic advancement opportunities for so many people.  

San Antonio Ready to Work (RTW) offers a promising example of how that can happen in a local or regional economy.  

A two-year-old training, education, and job placement program run by the municipal Workforce Development Office (WDO) in San Antonio, Texas, RTW works with a community-wide network of partners to provide city residents from low-income backgrounds with supports and resources that put them on pathways to quality jobs by enabling them to overcome barriers they may encounter in their career and education journeys. 

RTW has shown early signs of success and has delivered a strong return on investment. At Jobs for the Future (JFF), we believe it’s built on a model that cities across the country could replicate. 

What RTW Offers 

Launched in May 2022, RTW is a five-year, $200 million initiative funded by an 0.125% sales tax that will be collected through December 2025. 

Its goals are to interview more than 39,000 applicants, enroll 28,000 participants in professional training and education programs, and help 15,600 people who complete training programs land a quality job, which RTW defines as a role that pays an hourly wage of at least $15 or an annual salary of $31,200 plus benefits.  

RTW coaches help participants who meet certain residency and income guidelines set career and education goals based on their skills and interests and guide them through the entire process of identifying, enrolling in, and paying for training and education programs, updating their resumes, preparing for job interviews, and more.  

Participants can choose training and education programs from a catalog that includes courses offered by more than 70 local colleges, universities and training providers. Options include high school equivalency programs, courses or apprenticeships that lead to industry-recognized certifications, and associate’s and bachelor’s degree programs. Many participants can pursue training at low or no cost because RTW has allocated more than $110 million for tuition assistance and covers the cost of approved courses up to predetermined caps.  

A July 2023 analysis of the return on investment RTW had delivered projected lifetime income gains of more $780 million for the 511 RTW participants who had completed training and secured new jobs.

RTW also helps participants access supports like child care and transportation and provides limited emergency financial support for those who may face unexpected expenses for essentials like food, housing, or legal services while in training. 

When participants complete their training, RTW connects them to job openings in their chosen fields at employers that have pledged to provide employment opportunities for participants or otherwise support them and the program by, among other things, acting as industry liaisons, reviewing resumes, participating in job fairs, and providing internships. Participants also have access to a job board hosted by Greenlight that highlights jobs in fields that RTW focuses on, including construction, financial services, health care, education, and IT. Nearly 400 employers have pledged to support RTW.  

To ensure that these efforts succeed in meeting the needs of both program participants and employers, RTW has implemented the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Talent Pipeline Management framework, which outlines best practices for organizations to follow to ensure that the training and education programs they offer align with employer needs.  

Who RTW Works With

These four organizations, which RTW designates as its “prime” partners, are the principal providers of the services that RTW offers participants: 

Beyond those four prime partners, RTW collaborates with a number of other community organizations and city agencies to help connect participants to additional services and resources. Here are a few of them:  

RTW also works with several national organizations, including JFF, which facilitates the RTW community of practice (COP), a group of stakeholders that work together to keep RTW leaders aware of direct services efforts. The COP holds quarterly learning events to collectively problem-solve RTW challenges and help case managers stay abreast of new strategies for improving the participant experience.  

And in a recent effort to enhance RTW’s offerings, the WDO partnered with national nonprofit Social Finance to launch a pilot of an internship program called Pay It Forward. RTW participants who complete approved training and education programs can pursue six-week Pay It Forward internships with local employers. The WDO covers the interns’ wages, and if participants are hired full time at the end of the internship, employers “pay it forward” by reimbursing the WDO for the intern’s salary.    

In addition, RTW plans to collaborate with Credential Engine to ensure that the credentials that RTW participants earn align with standardized definitions and descriptions of the skills and expertise credential holders have acquired. This should make it easier for participants to find jobs because employers will have a better idea of what they’ve learned and what they can do.  

How RTW Grows and Improves

A July 2023 analysis of the return on investment RTW had delivered projected lifetime income gains of more $780 million for the 511 RTW participants who had completed training and secured new jobs as of that time. Moreover, because of those income gains, RTW was projected to eliminate up to $445 million in spending by local social safety net programs while pouring more than $460 million into the local economy through participant spending. In all, RTW was projected to return $61 to the community for every taxpayer dollar spent on the program.  

Core elements of RTW’s design show what’s needed for a local workforce development program to succeed.

For that level of success to continue, RTW’s leadership must be reflective, responsive, and agile to learn quickly and adjust when necessary. Therefore, RTW has embraced a continuous learning mindset from the start in order to ensure that it can keep improving its programs to best meet the needs of workers, learners, and employers in today’s evolving economy. 

Toward that end, RTW seeks ongoing feedback from its community of stakeholders, and that feedback has led to changes.  

For example, program leaders regularly review and update the catalog of training and education offerings, eliminating those with limited value in the labor market and those that offer poor wraparound supports or have received bad reviews. And to reach a broader population of workers and learners, the RTW Advisory Board has expanded eligibility by increasing the income cap (to 250% of the federal poverty guidelines) and welcoming people in the region who live outside San Antonio city limits if their families have military connections. 

One of the groups RTW turns to for feedback is the RTW Community of Practice. Others include the Community Champions collaborative, which helps connect prime partners with providers of wraparound supports; the employer engagement and community outreach subcommittees of the RTW Advisory Board, which provide opportunities for all stakeholders to come together to identify strategies to increase employer support; and Talent Pipeline Management subcommittees that focus on generating a clear vision of the San Antonio talent pipeline, in part to ensure that people who complete programs are aware of job openings and wage projections. 

How the RTW Model Could Scale Nationally

RTW has garnered attention from cities seeking to replicate its model and from federal agencies and national organizations.  

For example, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau and the National League of Cities wanted to learn about the impact RTW has on advancing economic equity, particularly how it engages members of populations that are underrepresented in quality jobs. Conversations with leaders of those organizations led to site visits and eventually the planning of a February 2024 event called “Putting Equity Into Action With San Antonio RTW.” Some 300 leaders from local and regional RTW partners attended the two-day event, which focused on strategies and best practices for addressing challenges facing regional workforce systems across the country, including child care for working parents and best practices for designing training programs in which workers can acquire skills that lead to quality jobs.  

RTW’s return-on-investment data provides a clear indication that its model works. And its sales tax revenue stream has provided a reliable funding mechanism that has supported key elements of the initiative. 

Could a program like RTW be replicated in other cities?  

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg seems to think so. “San Antonio Ready to Work can be a beacon for other communities around the nation to upskill and reskill workers equitably, making sure barriers like child care and basic needs are crossed off the list,” he said at the Putting Equity Into Action summit.  

With or without sales tax funding, core elements of RTW’s design show what’s needed for a local workforce development program to succeed: an engaged network of partners working together collaboratively, a strong emphasis on wraparound supports, the end-to-end coaching for participants, and a talent pipeline management approach. 

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