Tex. Labor Commissioner: To expand opportunity, rethink what counts as a “successful” career path

Julian Alvarez III says that creating more equitable opportunity in his state depends on expanding hands-on training and doing a better job of helping students understand the full range of career pathways.

Editor’s note: The Postsecondary Value Commission published its final report in May, featuring national data and a snapshot of career and wage outcomes in the University of Texas System. We asked Julian Alvarez III, the Texas Workforce Commissioner Representing Labor, to respond to the findings with his thoughts on career pathways and equitable opportunity in the state.

Photo of Commissioner Julian Alvarez

It’s happening—Texas is seeing growth across nearly every industry and major companies are relocating to the state, meaning more job opportunities for Texans. And while the state has many great universities and high schools, we need to honestly examine how we define a successful career path for students.

As Commissioner Representing Labor, I truly believe that all Texans are entitled to good careers—not just jobs. Our goal is to connect individuals with opportunities to ensure upward mobility regardless of race, creed, color, class. The more inclusive and diverse the better.

At the Texas Workforce Commission, we can accomplish this goal in two main ways: First, by providing hands-on training and apprenticeships that teach marketable skills as a route to gainful employment. And second, by sharing resources with students to help them identify their best career pathway.

The importance of hands-on training

Though Texas has many great colleges and universities, we need to recognize that a traditional four-year degree is not the only route to success. The costs associated with an undergraduate degree can often be out of reach for many, and others need to work their way through college. To make higher education more equitable, universities can embed technical certification training into programs of study which give students a path toward immediate employment in a specialized field, and increase the types of jobs available to them upon graduation.

These certifications also help prevent underemployment by allowing an undergrad to pursue a job in a trade or highly specialized field while applying for and working toward their “dream job.”

Apprenticeships, or the “earn while you learn” teaching model, provide another promising pathway. Apprenticeships have been around since the medieval ages, but in modern times, students combine classroom hours with applied on the job learning for one to six years.

The Registered Apprenticeship system, overseen by the U.S. Department of Labor, is designed to move an apprentice from a low or no skill entry-level position to full occupational proficiency by connecting students to a job on day one. They graduate from a registered apprenticeship program with little or no debt.

Importantly, the program has expanded well beyond the skilled construction trades—offering access to 300 career areas including software developers, engineers, technicians, mechanics, certified nursing assistants, electricians, dental assistants, and truck drivers. 

It’s also encouraging to see more colleges and universities recognize that the skills and knowledge gained through an apprenticeship should count toward college credit.

Through the Registered Apprenticeship College Consortium, developed by the U.S. Departments of Labor and Education, two and four-year institutions are partnering with registered apprenticeship programs across the country. Participating institutions agree to accept the college credit value of the registered apprenticeship certificate as recommended by a third-party evaluator.

In this way, college-sanctioned training and apprenticeships open up a new pipeline of skilled talent for the employers of Texas in high-demand fields. Just as important, the jobs apprentices fill are good paying roles, resulting in lower student debt and underemployment. 

A reality check—defining success for the future workforce

Students, families, and counselors also need better information about the full range of education and career pathways. For high school seniors, the process of applying to college can be daunting – from picking a major and identifying a future career to working through the process of financial aid. Most students aren’t sure what careers pay or will be trending ten years from now, but the Texas Workforce Commission does.

To help bridge the gap between a high school diploma and a future career, the Commission has assembled a group of education outreach specialists in partnership with multiple local workforce development boards. These specialists provide career services to students at public middle and high schools to direct students towards high growth, high demand occupations and next steps to take to pursue their dream career.

By having candid conversations with students about lifestyle goals and needs, they help identify the career paths to get them there. The Commission also has a full suite of tools available to students to help them make better informed career decisions that save time and money.

In addition to providing real-time labor market information, the specialists work with students on resume writing, interview prep and career exploration. 

We envision a future where each student has the opportunity for upward mobility and a rewarding career. Regardless of their background, every Texan is entitled to a high paying career. With a focus on hands-on training and robust career counseling, we’re making strides toward educating and uplifting the Texas workforce each day.

Julian Alvarez III is the Commissioner Representing Labor of the Texas Workforce Commission, where he represents the interests of more than 14 million Texas workers.

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