Growing up, Mia Flores wanted to look up to someone.

She had her parents, of course. But what she wanted was someone who blazed her own path through education and ultimately built a career.

Now, at 21, Flores is set to become the example she always wanted. Flores soon will graduate from the University of North Texas with a degree in mechanical engineering and a full-time job lined up at Lockheed Martin. 

She also serves as another example, one government and business leaders in Fort Worth want to emulate: a student who took advantage of work-based learning opportunities and now is pursuing a high-demand, high-wage job in the field. Officials plan to push the Texas Legislature to provide more funding so the state can help more students become like Flores.

“I know my 11-year-old self would admire everything I’ve done today,” said Flores, a speaker at a Sept. 27 discussion about how education can create a stronger workforce in Tarrant County. 

‘We just are’

Bringing business and education together is a key priority for municipal and education leaders. 

Fort Worth Mayor Mattie Parker considers bridging that gap a top priority. She points to state data that shows only 23% of Tarrant County students who started the eighth grade in 2008 earned an associate degree or higher within six years of high school graduation. 

That number is concerning for the mayor. Parker was the founding CEO 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 are in a crisis when it comes to education in this state. We just are, and I’m so disappointed that not enough people are talking about it,” Parker said.

The mayor wants all students to have the opportunity to earn a credential or an associate degree before they graduate high school. She acknowledged that the goal is ambitious, but the reality of the workforce necessitates aiming high.

By 2030, 62% of all Texas jobs will require a postsecondary credential. However, only 48% of Texans have earned a postsecondary credential. In Tarrant County, 65% of jobs require at least a certificate or an associate degree, according to the T3 Partnership. Only 39% of adults in the county have an associate degree or higher.

Parker wants state legislators to provide additional funding to K-12 schools and community colleges to grow the number of people with some sort of postsecondary credential. Additionally, extra dollars also could foster the growth of partnerships between businesses and schools to create work-based learning experiences. 

Lawmakers are considering a reform of community college finance that could accomplish what Parker suggested. Becky Calahan, director of Philanthropy Advocates, said two recommendations legislators are eyeing could help boost the state’s workforce. 

One proposal would expand partnerships among community colleges and businesses for paid work-based learning experiences for students. Another would provide one-time grants for programs in high-demand fields to support community colleges in rapidly standing up or expanding programs to meet workforce needs.

The next legislative session begins in January.

‘Looking back’

Flores, the UNT senior, forged her pathway to a full-time career with Lockheed Martin through internships. 

Flores graduated from the Young Women’s Leadership Academy in Fort Worth ISD. In school, she discovered a love for STEM through Project Lead The Way, which gives students hands-on experience in science, technology, engineering and math. In her junior year of high school, Flores was one of eight Fort Worth ISD students selected for Lockheed Martin’s internship program for high schoolers.

She supported teams that built F-35s. She saw the entire process for how the jet was put together. She even worked on a project that helped the production of the fighter jet.

“Looking back, it’s crazy to think they would allow a 17-year-old like me, who at the time didn’t have a college degree — let alone a high school diploma — have this kind of opportunity,” Flores said.

Katie Minihan, senior vice president of research at Project Lead The Way, led a study examining Lockheed Martin’s high school internship program. 

Lockheed Martin’s internship has partnerships with several Tarrant County school districts, connects high quality work-based learning opportunities to the classroom and has broad selection criteria so all students have an opportunity to participate. All of these factors have created a strong program that other companies can use as a blueprint to replicate.

High school students are not making coffee for older, more experienced employees, said Linda O’Brien, Lockheed Martin’s chief engineer. They are doing real work and are treated like peers, she said.

All of this sets students up for success later in life, the researcher said.

“A high-quality internship experience impacts students for a lifetime,” Minihan said. “If you want to increase the pipeline of STEM employees, having a high quality work-based learning opportunity in STEM fields is an effective way to do that.”

Lockheed Martin has seen the effects. Students who were high school interns are either working again as a college intern or are working full time for Lockheed Martin, according to a new report from Project Lead The Way.

“A student who has the opportunity to have a work-based learning experience enters the workforce at a huge advantage than those who don’t,” Minihan said.

‘The best way’

Jay McCall of the Rainwater Charitable Foundation and the mayor framed the need to get students engaged with the workforce as a way to lift barriers in their lives. Parker took it a step further and said this is how to end the cycle of poverty.

“From what we’ve seen, the best way to help a family is to boost their income through meaningful work and then upskilling through a career pathway,” McCall said.

Flores is a tangible example of a student who has been able to do just that, McCall said.

Flores is a woman of color breaking through the STEM field. She’s also a first-generation college student who will be the first in her family to earn a college degree.

“I’m blessed to be where I’m at today, and I hope to continue to be an inspiration to both aspiring engineers as well as young women to continue to defy the odds and break barriers,” Flores said.

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.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Avatar photo

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.