The audience oohed and aahed as Mayor Mattie Parker detailed the credentials of the four people flanking her left and right in plush red and gray seats. 

The quartet had just graduated from high school. Each also had an associate degree. One had seven certifications. And all had big plans for their future. After all, they were 18. 

Fort Worth has lagged behind other major Texas cities in securing major corporate relocations and benefiting from the economic development that usually follows. However, leaders see a path forward: Cultivating a skilled workforce through K-12 schools and higher education.

Education reporter Jacob Sanchez examines the issue through a three-part series: 

This series was produced as part of the Higher Education Media Fellowship at the Institute for Citizens & Scholars. The fellowship supports new reporting into issues related to postsecondary career and technical education.

The mayor looked at them and said they represent the future of Fort Worth. They linked their education with their career goals — and that, she said, makes the city’s workforce better. Parker also pointed out Fort Worth needs more people like them: Residents who have a postsecondary credential, such as an associate degree or industry certification.

Without one, “You simply can’t compete in today’s economy,” the mayor said. 

And neither will Fort Worth. 

Leaders see workforce development as one way to make Cowtown more attractive to business. A scattered approach to workforce development, they say, has hurt efforts to lure companies to Fort Worth. But city officials, school districts and Tarrant County College are now on the same page: Fort Worth must build up the skills of its future workers to boost its economic development prospects.

“If we can all move together, we’re going to move a lot faster,” David Saenz, Fort Worth ISD’s chief of innovation, told the Fort Worth Report. 

‘Provide that skilled workforce’

In the past decade, 530 companies moved or expanded to North Texas. Only 8% chose Fort Worth. 

The most recent big miss was striking out on electric vehicle-maker Rivian’s $5 billion manufacturing plant, with an expected 7,500 jobs. The company chose Georgia. Among the reasons the company picked the Peach State? Education and talent.

Even without what likely would have been a major shot in the arm for Fort Worth, the city and surrounding area have yet to truly capitalize on an estimated 1 million middle-skilled jobs that only need a postsecondary credential and pay an average of $24.47 an hour.

About 65% of jobs in Tarrant County require at least a certificate or an associate degree, according to the Tarrant To & Through Partnership. However, 39% of adults in the county have an associate degree or higher.

State data show even lower figures for students who attended school in Tarrant County. The state follows students as they enter high school, graduate and eventually earn a postsecondary credential. The most recent data tracked 23,705 Tarrant County students who started eighth grade in 2008. Six years later, just over two out of 10 of those students earned a certification or college degree.

David Nolet, a managing director at JPMorgan Chase, is trying to ensure more Fort Worth residents earn a postsecondary credential. Nolet is a board member of the Tarrant To & Through Partnership, an organization that supports students through college and career advising, scholarships and mentorships to help them earn a degree or credential and enter the workforce. 

“We need to be able to provide that skilled workforce to these companies that are moving to Fort Worth and that are growing in Fort Worth,” Nolet said.

Building up a skilled workforce is one of the mayor’s top priorities. The only way Parker sees Fort Worth improving its workforce development pipeline is bringing education institutions and businesses together. Parker introduced a new committee of business and education leaders who are focused on improving workforce development in Fort Worth.

For Parker, there is no daylight between education and business. They must work together. K-12 schools and colleges need to know what jobs will be available to their students when they graduate. Businesses — large, small, new or established — need a steady flow of future workers. 

“This is a game-changing opportunity for us. We have to get this right,” Parker told the Report.

‘Difference between a career vs. a job’

Two of the largest educational institutions in the city, Fort Worth ISD and Tarrant County College, have recognized how they must be tapped into the job needs of businesses. 

Fort Worth ISD frequently talks to industry leaders to align its career readiness programs to their needs. Students can take classes within 14 career clusters. They gain hands-on experience and can even earn an industry-level certification or an associate degree. 

Career clusters in Fort Worth ISD

Students in Fort Worth ISD can choose from 14 career clusters for technical and career readiness classes. Admission is based on interest, lottery selection, age appropriateness and class space availability. Here are the clusters:

  • Agriculture, food and natural resources
  • Architecture and construction
  • Arts, audio video technology, and communications
  • Business, marketing, and finance
  • Education and training
  • Energy
  • Health science
  • Hospitality and tourism
  • Human services
  • Information technology support and services
  • Law and public service
  • Manufacturing
  • Science, technology, engineering and mathematics
  • Transportation, distribution and logistics

Saenz, the district’s innovation chief, sees this as workforce development. He wants all students to strive toward a career, regardless of what it is and whether they take the traditional path and attend college.

“All postsecondary education is valuable. It just needs to be focused on the things that we need here and make sure that we share with our families what those are,” Saenz said.

The best way to show students and their families what’s available is to show them the pathways. That term is one that is tossed around when discussing career readiness. All it means is to show students the steps they need to take to reach their career and what additional moves they can make to reach higher levels of success once in their profession.

In the past, the pathway to a career was simple: Graduate high school, go to college, earn a bachelor’s degree and get a good-paying job. Now, that’s not the formula for success. Students have multiple choices and have no set timeline for how to make a career. 

Exposing students to careers, even those that they may have bristled at, is key for Daphne Rickard, Fort Worth ISD’s Career and Technical Education executive director. 

For example, Rickard said, a certification could lead to an entry position paying $18 an hour. Now, Rickard recognized that some jobs, like those at a fast-food joint, could have a higher pay, but those are not careers. Lower pay now is worth it when a few months later that employer may support a certified worker in getting additional certifications or even a college degree that can lead to an actual living wage and a career for life.

“That is the biggest message that I think for anybody in the area is the difference between a career vs. a job and what the options are,” Rickard said.

Fort Worth ISD has seen some success. In 2020, more than one out 10 graduates earned an industry certification. More than 4% of 2020 graduates earned an associate degree. More Fort Worth ISD graduates earn an associate degree as a percentage of their class than students across the state and the district’s education region. However, Fort Worth ISD is slightly behind the state and its region when it comes to students earning a certification.

Saenz expects the number of Fort Worth ISD graduates earning an associate degree to grow to more than 1,200 within the next three years. In 2020, 209 students earned an associate degree, according to the most recent data from the state.

TCC also shows its students different pathways toward careers. In fact, TCC has tied its pathways to what high schools have. Bill Coppola, the president of Tarrant County College Southeast Campus, oversees the college’s workforce development efforts. 

Students have access to so much information online that it can be detrimental to them deciding what. Educators must guide students through and help chart their career trajectory, Coppola said. The paths also help ensure students aren’t wasting precious resources. 

“You just can’t try things anymore. It adds to debt,” Coppola said.

TCC is not just for adults. The college also has partnered with school districts to offer dual credit courses and more immersive programs for students, including early college high schools where students earn an associate degree alongside their diploma. In the spring, 508 high school students were among the 3,282 people who earned an associate degree or certification.

‘Making a living’

Some of this work is already occurring in Fort Worth and with TCC — just not inside the core. The city’s Alliance area in north Fort Worth is proof of how connecting business with education can be successful.

Tom Harris is an executive vice president of Hillwood, the company that has developed Alliance. He also is leading the mayor’s Council on Education and Workforce Development.

Hillwood has been at the center of bringing industry, like itself, to classrooms. The company has worked with TCC and school districts, such as Keller and Northwest ISDs, to carve out pathways that meet the needs of jobs in north Fort Worth. 

Northwest ISD, for example, has an aviation academy where students can learn skills and earn certifications that allow them to work at any of the region’s airports or even at Lockheed Martin or Bell Textron. 

“We purposely had been trying to set up these pathways for industries,” Harris said.

The pathways, though, do not stop once a student leaves high school. Agreements are in place allowing students to continue to pursue a four-year degree at a more traditional college, such as in aviation logistics at the University of North Texas.

Alliance has been able to reap the economic benefits of a tightly connected business and education community. In the past decade, eight companies opened new facilities and four expanded in Alliance, according to a Report analysis.

Harris believes bringing what has worked in north Fort Worth to inside of Loop 820 is possible. The key is communicating it correctly to the people who will benefit and forging new partnerships between school districts and businesses.

“There are a hundred ways of making a living through a license program, some type of certification or two-year associate degree — and you can make damn good money,” Harris said.

‘Counteract generational poverty’

Helping Fort Worth’s economic development is key for Parker, the mayor. However, getting more postsecondary credentials into residents’ hands is more than just attracting business to this city of nearly 1 million people. She sees this as a way to change resident’s economic mobility. 

Six out of 10 students in Tarrant County qualify for a free or reduced lunch. That means these students are coming from homes near, at or below the poverty line. 

Saenz, the Fort Worth ISD innovation chief, also shares Parker’s vision. A postsecondary credential can set students on the route toward a high wage in a high demand. The effect that can have goes beyond a single student.

“That’s how you counteract generational poverty,” Saenz said.

One child can begin to break their family out of the cycle of poverty, he said. However, it will take multiple generations to end that cycle.

A 2020 report from Georgetown University found that certificates and associate degrees are viable ways for students to reach economic opportunity. That means these students are saving money and time to get into a job that is likely available to them the moment they graduate.

However, associate degrees and certifications are overlooked, according to the Georgetown report. Associate degrees and certifications have a stronger link to careers. Nationwide, about 94% of certification programs and 57% of associate degree programs are career oriented. 

Half of all Black and Latino undergraduate students in the nation are enrolled in certificate or associate degree programs. And low-income undergraduate students are the most likely to enroll in a certification or associate degree program.

Career pathways are an easy concept to understand: You find a career and here’s how to achieve it. However, Saenz sees that idea as more than just that. 

“We’re creating a pathway for upward mobility,” he said.

Ambitiousness

Melanie Bisisi, a 2022 graduate of Everman ISD, listens to Fort Worth Mayor Mattie Parker during an event in early May at the Bob Bolen Public Safety Complex. (Courtesy of the city of Fort Worth)

Officials see workforce development as a way to bring more business to Fort Worth, end poverty and improve education systems. This is how adults in positions of power see their focus on students earning postsecondary credentials.

Students don’t. The four students who Parker said represented the future of Fort Worth did not think of their academic success in those terms. Instead, they saw their postsecondary credentials as a step toward achieving their goals.

Crowley ISD graduate Brandon Irving set his sights on becoming a supply chain director within seven years. To get there, he got his associate degree and plans to get his bachelor’s degree within a year.

Melanie Bisisi just graduated from Everman ISD. She wants to work for NASA to show young immigrants like her what is possible through the power of education. 

Fort Worth ISD graduate Jose Almaguar is striving to be the first person in his family with a four-year degree. 

And Jordan Smithee, who graduated from Northwest ISD with seven certifications, plans to work as a cosmetologist as she studies art history and earns her next degree without taking on any debt. 

Their goals are ambitious and individualized. But they all connect: Each is playing a part in changing Fort Worth’s economic trajectory. 

Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at jacob.sanchez@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Jacob Sanchez

Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise reporter for the Fort Worth Report. His work has appeared in the Temple Daily Telegram, The Texas Tribune and the Texas Observer. He is a graduate of St. Edward’s University.