Mary Ross has been the face of Workforce Solutions of West Central Texas as its executive director since it formed in 1996.
Workforce Solutions provide services to employers and job seekers in Taylor and 18 surrounding counties.
But at Workforce Solutions’ recent 25th anniversary celebration, it was clear by the awards for its partners that connecting jobs and workers in the region is a team effort.
The 15 recipients represented a cross-section of area entities: local government, economic development, education and nonprofit.
Ross “has surrounded herself with some great people that really make our job on the board very, very easy. They do an outstanding job and work very hard,” said BIll Crist, chairman of the board for Workforce Solutions, at the Oct. 20 celebration.
The event was in the lobby of the Enterprise Building, 500 Chestnut St., where Workforce Solutions operates. There also are satellite offices in Brownwood, Eastland, Snyder and Sweetwater.
What is Workforce Solutions?
Workforce Solutions offers local and area residents help in finding a job, but it is not simply an employment agency.
Because it channels state and federal funds for workforce development, it’s projects are multifaceted and often focused on employers’ needs.
“Our primary customer, we always say, are employers because if you don’t have jobs, then having a bunch of job seekers doesn’t really do any good,” Ross said.
Workforce Solutions is one of 28 regional boards across the state that contract with the state agency Texas Workforce Commission to provide programs for employers and employees.
In 1995, Texas legislators created local boards to devolve control of a variety of workforce programs from state government to local decision makers.
The thinking was to get away from a one-size-fits-all mentality because “the challenges of the economy or the services maybe in Houston probably shouldn’t look exactly the same as the services in Sweetwater or Abilene,” Ross said.
Part of the transition included creating a one-stop center for job seekers, Ross said, because unemployment – or underemployment – can be about more than finding a job.
Sometimes, the challenges cascade into needing help with writing a resumé, new skills training and childcare assistance while attending classes.
“Imagine a mom who may be on public assistance, or maybe her spouse has just deserted her. Her partner has just left. And she has some children and she needs to go to work,” Ross said. “So where does she go?”
Prior to the creation of Workforce Solutions, the mom would have to visit three or four agencies to get assistance with supplemental nutrition (food stamps), job training, employment assistance and child care. Each visit would require showing the same ID cards, birth certificates and other personal documents. The redundancy wastes time and energy.
Now, all those needs can be addressed at one location for a more efficient system, Ross said.
Specialized employment services for veterans and the disabled also are channeled through Workforce Solutions.
“To the public, it looks like everybody’s a Workforce Solutions person, but they actually work for three or four different entities, some state and some private, but it’s a one-stop shop for the customer still,” Ross said.
Prior to Workforce Solutions, Ross worked for 18 years with West Central Texas Council of Governments, which operated employment training programs.
The state provided seed money to start the regional workforce boards. But beginning from scratch had many challenges, from how to pay the bills and keep accounting records to orienting new board members and finding office space, Ross said.
“We had a brand new board of volunteer folks, most of whom were unaware of the prior system,” Ross said about the first board.
The majority of the 30 volunteer board members who oversee Workforce Solutions represent local businesses. They are nominated locally and appointed by a committee of five county judges in the area.
“It was very good to be involved with a group of people who are trying to do something better for the communities,” Diann Morris of Cisco said. She was a member of the inaugural board and served about nine years, she said.
Morris and her husband, J.D., founded RAM (Research Advanced Methods) Inc. in 1990 to manufacturer custom-molded components for the aerospace, defense, energy, medical and other industries. In 2020, it was named small employer of the year by the state commission.
Having a group in the area focused on workforce development was of interest to Morris because small communities such as Cisco did not have employment agencies or services for training workers, she said.
“Finding good employees is a very difficult thing,” Morris said.
Helping job creators
For employers and economic development agencies trying to attract new businesses and retain established ones, Workforce Solutions offers labor market information, money for training, recruiting services and more.
Most of the economic development entities in the area “are very small,” Ross said. “… so they don’t have a capacity to do a lot of things.”
A ready supply of a skilled workforce is critical to economic development because creating a minimum number of new jobs often is a part of incentive packages extended to businesses. If businesses cannot find the workers, then the will fail to meet the required number of full-time positions.
Workforce Solutions serves as the connector between the economic development entities, employers and colleges in the area to develop training programs and funnel funding to support the initiatives.
One example is the fast-track welding programs Workforce Solutions helped facilitate years ago with Cisco College and funded by the Development Corporation of Abilene “because there was a huge demand for welders,” Ross said.
Workforce Solutions also assists businesses with layoff and closure assistance.
Making a difference
Workforce Solutions has grown from three staff members managing about $2 million-3 million in government funds to a group of 30 overseeing about $20 million in state and federal grants.
Major accomplishments include getting services under one roof by 2000, opening satellite offices, partnering with public school districts and colleges to prepare students for careers, hosting job fairs in the region and virtually and connecting employees and employers with the online jobs database workintexas.com.
There also have been teacher externships, support for the colleges’ early childhood education programs, World of Work youth career expos, career video series, economic development roundtables, virtual reality career and training simulation and upskilling and reskilling training programs.
One notable Workforce Solutions project in recent years is its partnership with the city of Abilene to develop Kirby Lake Nature Play Area, which was dedicated in 2018.
“We have seen a huge need, in working with (child care) providers, for more outdoor activities,” Ross said. “Kids are often just going to child care centers and there’s not a lot of grass and trees.”
Workforce Solutions had some funding available to benefit child-care providers, and the solution was the play area at the underutilized area of the park, Ross said.
Looking ahead, Ross expects automation and technology to have a greater impact on the workforce of tomorrow. That will require employers working with high schools and colleges to educate future employees sooner.
“It’s clear that we’re going to be focusing more on digital literacy than we are now. We need to really help people not just know how to use a computer basically but how to really use it effectively,” Ross said.
Laura Gutschke is a general assignment reporter and food columnist and manages online content for the Reporter-News. If you appreciate locally driven news, you can support local journalists with a digital subscription to ReporterNews.com.
Workforce Solutions of West Central Texas presented Sterling Awards to the following economic development, community and education partners for their support of workforce development in the past 25 years.
- 2-1-1 A Call for Help
- City of Abilene
- Abilene Industrial Foundation
- Breckenridge Economic Development Corporation
- Brownwood Municipal Development District
- Cisco College, Cisco
- Development Corporation of Abilene
- Development Corporation of Snyder
- Eastland Economic Development Corporation
- Ranger College, Ranger
- Region XIV Education Service Center
- Sweetwater Enterprise for Economic Development, Inc.
- Texas Midwest Community Network
- Texas State Technical College
- Western Texas College, Snyder
Workforce Solutions’ area
Nineteen West Texas counties are served: Brown, Callahan, Coleman, Comanche, Eastland, Fisher, Haskell, Jones, Kent, Knox, Mitchell, Nolan, Runnels, Scurry, Shackelford, Stephens, Stonewall, Taylor and Throckmorton.