Positive stories illustrate promise of Ready to Work, but $200M jobs program still missing its goals – San Antonio Express-News

Back home in San Antonio for a few days off, Damone Johnson was feeling good. He’d just taken his mother out to lunch and now was flashing photos from his recent travels. He had pictures of fall foliage in upstate New York, fog rolling through the mountains of West Virginia and calm waters along the Gulf of Mexico in Florida.

For Johnson, who’d done several stints in jail — the last time in 2010 — truck driving is a departure from the minimum wage warehouse jobs he’s held in recent years, mostly loading and unloading trucks. With his background, he said, that was the only work he could get.

On ExpressNews.com: Concerns being raised as Ready to Work job training program continues to lag goals for enrollment

“I never saw myself being here right now. I always thought my life was destined for bad… I always thought I was going to be working some dead-end job,” Johnson said. “I’ve made more in two months than I can make in almost a whole year of working at a little regular, basic job making $8 an hour.

“It’s like, oh my God — I can take my mom out to eat every morning if I want to. We can go out to dinner,” he said. “I can go do whatever I want to do.”

His story is emblematic of the job training program’s potential. But two years after voters approved more than $200 million for Ready to Work in response to lofty claims like Mayor Ron Nirenberg’s promise of 10,000 trainees per year, the program is still being built, its goals are being regularly scaled back and its self-imposed deadlines to show success are being extended.

The latest was a decision to add three months to the program’s “first year,” a move that could make its first annual report rosier than it otherwise would be.

Though city staffers have cheered the idea that since late 2020 San Antonio has begun establishing a novel job training system from scratch, its rollout has been scattershot.

The actual launch of Ready to Work was delayed nearly a year from last fall to this summer, and the program was still likely to fall short of its first-year goal for enrolled trainees before administrators last week pushed it out another three months.

And as of now, Johnson is one of just 11 people who have had training and landed a job through Ready to Work, which opened for enrollment in mid-May.

On ExpressNews.com: Initial trainees graduate as voter-approved SA: Ready to Work program lifts off

By Thursday, 592 San Antonio residents were enrolled in training courses, most in pursuit of careers in truck driving or health care. Of those, 65 have completed training. The 11 at work are driving trucks, jobs that pay about $20 an hour.

The city had spent $4.5 million on the program through Sept. 30.

Lower expectations

Ready to Work has suffered negative perceptions stemming from lofty expectations like those set by Nirenberg. As soon as Mike Ramsey, director of the city’s Workforce Development Office, was hired last August to push the program from political idea to workforce reality, he quickly sought to quash any expectations it would train anywhere near 10,000 people a year.

Extending the first year is the latest delay;Ready to Work was originally supposed to launch last fall before its opening was pushed to the start of this year and then back again to this summer.

Last week, the city argued that moving the end of the program’s first year to June 30 from the end of March makes sense because Ready to Work didn’t fully launch until June. So the June 30 results will be closer to a full year of data, Ramsey said.

Here’s the rest of the current status: More than 7,800 people have applied for Ready to Work, on track to meet its first year goal of just more than 9,800 applications. Eligible participants must be at least 18 years old, eligible to work in the United States and earn less than about $34,000 per year.

The city has signed a four-year contract worth $189 million with four organizations — Alamo Colleges, Workforce Solutions Alamo, Restore Education and Project QUEST — to enroll participants in training and provide case management services. More than 50 subcontractors are providing the actual training, a network some organizers have complained is too vast and difficult to navigate.

On ExpressNews.com: City Council OKs $185 million in contracts for Ready to Work

As part of the contract, the city said the four main contractors had to enroll at least 5,758 people into training by the end of March 2023, a year after signing the contract with the city.

But after members of an advisory board last month pointed out that the contractors had enrolled just 300 participants at that point, the city opted this week to push the deadline out to June 30.

The delay will likely prevent the contractors from reporting paltry first-year results for Ready to Work by giving them three extra months to enroll participants.

The contractors “felt like with the additional three-month time period, a number of people will come into the pipeline and they’ll be able to hit their marks,” Ramsey said.

Contractor performance

Project QUEST, which was Johnson’s case manager, has made the most progress among the four contractors. It has enrolled 258 people into training and 40 participants have graduated. Six of the people Project QUEST worked with have gotten jobs.

By comparison, the other three agencies have helped 17 people complete training and four to land jobs. With 82 people enrolled in training so far, Alamo Colleges is the furthest off of its target for next June of enrolling just over 1,700 trainees.

Ready to Work organizers often urge patience around the program, saying it may take years to see significant benefits. And Ready to Work is likely the largest-scale job training program a city has ever undertaken on its own, so Ramsey has said there is no road map for policymakers to follow.

On ExpressNews.com: City pushes for commitments from San Antonio employers to hire Ready to Work participants

Organizers are trying to bridge the gaps they’re seeing as they arise — primarily employers not being willing to hire graduates straight out of training.

Ramsey, for example, is pitching an idea to help people training for technology jobs by having the city pay the first six weeks of their salary while they do what he calls a “micro-internship” for a company. If the company wants to ultimately hire the employee beyond the internship, the city could ask them to pay the six weeks of salary back so that the city could recycle the cash to provide six weeks of pay to another trainee at another company.

“I can create a carrot to say (to an employer), ‘Hey, give this person a chance even though you wouldn’t typically hire them. We’ll pay for that person to prove to you that they can do what they were trained to do, and that they can add value to your company,’” Ramsey said. “And if you hire them, say, ‘Thank you city, this is a great program, I’ll give you that money back so you can bring somebody else into a paid internship.’ And that way we can keep the cycle going.”

The city is also coordinating with employers in different industries to find out what roles to fund training for, and conducting a Ready to Work job fair Dec. 12.

Johnson’s experience

Johnson himself learned about Project QUEST and the training opportunity at a job fair for formerly incarcerated individuals this summer. He had to ride his bike there — Johnson didn’t have a car yet — and it was raining. He almost turned back toward home.

“Do I have the passion or the courage to want to do this?” Johnson recalled asking himself at the time.

“I pulled my rain jacket out of my backpack and put it on, and I got to that job fair soaking wet,” he said.

On ExpressNews.com: ‘We’re going to change lives’: How the city’s new workforce director plans to roll out the voter-approved Ready to Work initiative

Johnson got connected with Project QUEST, which later interviewed him several times to determine his eligibility to receive funding for training.

He took a seven-week CDL course through Good Careers Academy. The pace of the short course was “grueling,” Johnson said, until he got the hang of driving big rigs.

“At first, the seven weeks felt too short. In the first three weeks, you’re like ‘This is not enough time.’ You’re in a panic mode like, ‘I’m not going to get all this in this short time,’” he said, before concluding: “It’s enough time.”

For now, Johnson is part of a two-man driving team. He hopes to one day buy his own truck and hire graduates who are in the position he was in earlier this year.

“I strive to one day become an owner-operator, and be able to take someone from (Good Careers Academy) or someone from Project QUEST who graduated from a CDL course, and help them learn to drive. Take them on the road and give them experience,” Johnson said.

“I felt like I finally accomplished something — like I would be somebody in this world. I was not just going to be a nobody anymore,” he said after getting his commercial drivers license. “I’ll be able to do good things and finally get some of the things I actually want in this world.”

diego.mendoza-moyers@express-news.net

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