Despite economic impacts from coronavirus, Workforce helps students build resumes, confidence

PRESIDIO — Crystal Barriga is back in school now, a senior at Presidio High. But in the spring, as she prepared for her last summer break at Presidio ISD, she set her sights on one goal: Getting a job.

“A lot of my friends are always wanting jobs,” Barriga said in an interview this week. And when it came to getting a job, Barriga knew who she should talk to.

“When we ask around [about jobs], the school tells us about Workforce,” she said. And so Barriga reached out to Workforce Solutions Borderplex, which quickly found her office work at a local stockyard.

For those who have already finished schooling, it will likely come as no surprise that jobs can be hard to come by right now. The coronavirus crisis and ensuing lockdowns have killed an estimated 22 million jobs across the United States, and less than half of those have been regained, MarketWatch reported last month.

Nor was the tri-county spared these effects: In June, according to Workforce analysis, unemployment in Presidio County topped out at more than 17%, almost twice the Texas unemployment rate of around 9%.

Workforce Solutions, a nonprofit dedicated to helping people find quality jobs, is determined to bring those unemployment numbers down and help residents find work. But in recent years, it’s also set its sights on another goal: helping students find work, so that they finish up high school with a longer resume and more confidence.

Workforce’s efforts on that front started a few years ago, when the nonprofit and Presidio city teamed up to find students jobs, Lucio Glenn, a project coordinator at the nonprofit, said in an interview.

But they gained speed in 2018 and 2019, as state lawmakers put more money into rural employment and as Workforce teamed up with the Rio Grande Council of Governments, allowing them to coordinate with more local governments and companies. “We were like, ‘This is an opportunity for us to really go full speed ahead,’” Glenn said.

Finding students jobs is about more than a paycheck, Glenn said — it’s also about helping students build up experience and confidence. “Good work experience in a field that they eventually want to study in is the key,” he said. Workforce calls that initiative, which is generally open to people between the ages of 16 and 24, “work-based learning.” Besides students, they also help to find work for at-risk youth, including foster children and people with criminal records.

With those goals in mind, Workforce also tries to mentor students as they start what are sometimes their first jobs. The group releases regular lists of “hot” and “cloudy” careers, so that students see which fields are seeing growth and which are stagnating.

In this year: jobs like software developing, which has entry wages around $30 an hour and is expected to see growth of around 37% in the next decade. But the prospects in other jobs aren’t so rosy, including shoe repair (projected to shrink by 4.7%) and travel agents, down 9.5%.

At press time, The Big Bend Sentinel has not seen total numbers of how many student workers Workforce was able to employ throughout the region. But Glenn, the project coordinator, estimates that coronavirus had an impact on those opportunities as well.

“There was certainly a shift,” he said. Service industry — typically a big employer in the region — was down. Some kids were afraid to work. Employers weren’t opening at 100%, and some local governments, facing tighter budgets, were wary to take on student workers. In Presidio city government, for example, the number of student workers fell by about half, from around 14 to around eight.

“People were trying to cover immediate needs,” Glenn said. “They couldn’t host a youth and give them the same mentoring and the opportunities as normal.” But like any good job-hunter, Glenn says Workforce tried to diversify to fill in the gaps.

Regardless, it was still able to find many students jobs. Take Kelly Baeza, another Presidio senior, who spent the summer helping the Rio Grande Council of Governments get addresses straightened out in Presidio.

It was the first job for Baeza, who hopes to study animal science at Sul Ross next year. She said the opportunity helped her build confidence as a worker. She learned specific skill sets, like working with data and spreadsheets, as well as general life skills, like taking the lead on projects.

Barriga, the stockyard worker who says she’s considering a career in neuroscience of kinesiology, had a similarly positive experience. Though there wasn’t a direct overlap between stockyard work and her interests, she said the job nonetheless built confidence and prepared her to take on new opportunities in the future.

“It was good having a routine every day that wasn’t just school,” Barriga said. And even better was the confidence. Sometimes, she says, employees and coworkers might look down on a student worker — but not the stockyards. “The adults treated me like one of them. It made me feel like, ‘Okay, I can do this.’”