Seeking solutions for workforce issue

By Ken Esten Cooke —

Local business owners know that Fredericksburg and Gillespie County’s most pressing problems are finding employees to fill the needs of a growing economy.

While it’s a blessing to have a healthy economy, those in the service sector find it can be hard to make ends meet with what jobs pay locally.

The Leaders’ Breakfast on Tuesday — sponsored by the Fredericksburg Chamber of Commerce, the Gillespie County Economic Development Commission and the Fredericksburg Convention and Visitor Bureau — helped highlight the challenges that we must face.

Gillespie County’s job rate in April was 2.7 percent (it rose slightly to 3.1 percent in May). Five percent is considered “full employment,” so that illustrates our problem.

Local employers place help wanted ads, put signs in windows and have made up banners promoting signing bonuses to try and draw talented, reliable employees.

A task force spearheaded by City Manager Kent Myers, City Planning Director Brian Jordan and EDC Executive Director Tim Lehmberg is visiting with different entities and seeking out solutions. We are appreciative of their efforts.

Yet these challenges work against us:

Affordable housing — Workforce housing, including small homes and apartments, are essentially at 100-percent occupancy. Homes in the $150,000 to $200,000 range are difficult to find, and many service jobs — such as nurses, teachers and policemen — would still have difficulty funding a mortgage at that level.

But a 36-unit townhouse development is under construction, and a jobs task force has solicited help from an entity that offers what is essentially an affordable housing subdivision. The task force and city also are looking at potential public-private partnerships to spur development of affordable housing.

Childcare — Perhaps no issue defines a young family’s struggle to make ends meet than the lack of childcare options. Women have trouble returning to the workforce simply because all local childcare options are filled and have waiting lists. There also is a shortage of infant-based childcare options. Parents of young children often must work evenings and weekends, and there are no childcare options available here at those times.

Transportation — A large number of people already commute to Fredericksburg to fill jobs. And with gas prices headed toward $4 a gallon, the commute is a challenge on a service-job paycheck. Some employers have chosen to offer gas cards or other supplemental benefits. But there is a lack of public transportation options to bring in workers from area towns. Again, the task force has been in talks to discuss options.

Low wages, benefits — One survey revealed that local employers need to get more creative on how to retain employees with compensation and perks. Service jobs that pay near minimum wage and offer less than 30 hours to save on benefits will likely have high turnover in this market. This is an expensive market in which to live, so wages should keep up with expenses if employers value stability in their ranks.

Training opportunities — Dr. Eric Wright, superintendent of the Fredericksburg Independent School District, indicated Tuesday that the district is partnering with its neighbors in a consortium that may be able to address some training needs. Wright said six districts are working together (and others have expressed interest) in seeing targeted career training offered at the high school level. (The passage of House Bill 5 in the last legislative session freed up districts to see high school “be more like college,” Wright said.)

A student survey indicated a strong desire for classes in digital arts, health science, architecture and construction, agriculture, STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) training, education, manufacturing, automotive, hospitality and tourism as some areas of interest. If the consortium can get enough students to form a class, then training and mentoring could take place.

Employers with existing workforces should explore their own workforce training needs. Employees value additional training as it keeps them vested in the business.

Alamo Workforce Solutions has a presence in our community, and a private job placement company has expressed an interest in locating here. Other efforts like a county wide, online jobs board are in the works (with assistance from this newspaper).

No single solution will be a panacea for this area’s great needs. But together, options are being explored so this town’s good times can trickle down to all who contribute.

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