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Rio Grande Valley, Texas: Next Generation Sector Partnerships in Health Care and Information Technology

Elizabeth Sobel Blum

July 2018

About the Next Generation Sector Partnership Model

Next Generation Sector Partnerships are regional collaborations of businesses, from the same industry and in a shared labor market region that work with education workforce development, economic development and community organizations to address workforce and other pressing competitiveness needs of a target industry. While the concept of public-private partnerships or even workforce sector partnerships is not unique, Next Generation Sector Partnerships are distinct in three ways: 1) they are industry-driven; 2) they are community supported; and 3) they are comprehensively focused on workforce and economic development. Partnerships launch when industry leaders in one geographic region (such as the Rio Grande Valley, Texas, which includes Cameron, Hidalgo, Willacy and Starr counties) come together to identify their biggest, shared opportunities for growth, then prioritize the most important requirements to capitalize on those opportunities. In response, educators, workforce boards, chambers of commerce, community-based organizations and others coordinate with each other and partner with the industry to address these requirements.

The Next Generation Sector Partnership model strongly reflects an “open-source” approach to workforce and economic development. No individual person or organization owns it—industry sector business leaders own it with their community partners. Partnerships act as an operating system by serving as a platform for discourse, analysis, decision-making, coordination and innovation for the benefit of the industry, the regional economy that hosts it and the jobseekers and workers who reside in the community.

While it may be counterintuitive to some that industry leaders would work with their competitors, they come to the table because they recognize that some of the industry’s most important requirements for growth and competitiveness span the region and their industry, and issues cannot be resolved independently. For more information about the model, see the Next Generation Sector Partnerships website and the publication “Regional Talent Pipelines: Collaborating with Industry to Build Opportunities in Texas” by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas and Center for Public Policy Priorities.

Rio Grande Valley, Texas: Emerging Next Generation Sector Partnerships

In November 2014, Educate Texas invited higher education institutions to apply for the Texas Regional STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) Degree Accelerator (TRSDA) grant. One of the goals of the grant was to support regional teams to redesign gateway courses in STEM pathways to align with workforce needs. To determine the regional educational and workforce needs, South Texas College (STC) invited partners from K-12 schools, two-year and four-year higher education institutions, and the workforce to form a South Texas Regional Consortium. The consortium used data provided by Burning Glass and the labor market. Based on data collected, the regional team was able to determine that demands in health care and information technology are expected to increase and, as a result, the partners decided to focus efforts on these areas.

The following year, under the leadership of STC, Educate Texas awarded the three-year TRSDA grant to the Rio Grande Valley (RGV) region. One of the focuses of this grant was to provide professional development to STEM faculty—primarily those teaching in fields related to health care and information technology—from across the RGV. These faculty members include those teaching dual-enrollment classes in high schools and those instructing at two-year and four-year institutions. STC created the RGV STEM Faculty Institute, whose goals are the following:

  • Promote the use of innovative instructional strategies in higher education classrooms in order to foster student engagement and success
  • Connect and engage faculty with the local workforce and employers in STEM fields
  • Promote the development of leadership and change management skills among higher-education faculty to impact systematic change and alignment of practices among regional institutes of higher education [1]

Through this initiative, the RGV’s goal is to increase the number of Hispanics and women in STEM careers by providing classroom experiences based on real-life scenarios.

Throughout the process, the RGV has relied on the expertise of the workforce members of the consortium to provide input on the needs of local employers. The consortium convenes at least once a year and has grown to include employers and other institutions that were not initially involved with the project.

“Because we had such a strong and positive connection with the workforce and employers already, Educate Texas came back to us and said, ‘since you already have employers from across the region at the table, and this grant is intended to be regional, would you be interested in exploring the Next Generation Sector Partnerships?’ It was a natural extension to do the sector partnership, but not the original reason for the grant,” explained STC project director Valerie Gamez.[2]

As a result, the RGV has launched two Next Generation Sector Partnerships—the South Texas Health Care Sector Partnership and South Texas IT Sector Partnership. Each partnership is co-chaired by three to four senior business leaders and composed of 15–25 senior business executives from each sector. The partnerships are supported by a team from the community—including colleges and universities, economic development organizations, workforce development boards and other partners. These partnerships are still emerging, but Gamez sees them as a tremendous opportunity.

“We hope they take off because we need to produce much better career pathways—life pathways. This is a distinct need, as the region’s four counties often work in silos to address the region’s workforce challenges,” she said.

Operating in silos is not unique to the counties. Educators, workforce boards, economic development organizations and other entities in the workforce ecosystem do not always coordinate with each other as a large network to directly address an industry’s stated needs. There is a tendency to say, “We already do that/we’re graduating students; employers aren’t hiring them.”

This situation is particularly problematic because in the health care field, there are not enough graduates to meet regional needs; in the information technology field, there is a “brain drain” because many students are not aware of the opportunities that exist locally. Next Generation Sector Partnerships can be game-changers because they can move the region’s conversation forward and get tangible results.

As a result of the efforts of the TRSDA grant and the developing Next Generation Sector Partnerships, Gamez said “our community is focusing on teaching students the skills and knowledge prioritized by our employers, and our students are equipped to navigate our robust career pathways that lead to family-sustaining jobs.”

South Texas Health Care Sector Partnership

Overview

Following the Next Generation Sector Partnership model, beginning in January 2017, STC has played the role of convener, reaching out to local health care providers to participate in the partnership. Workforce development organizations, chambers of commerce and economic workforce developers as well as educators from two-year and four-year institutions were invited to participate as part of the nonindustry support team and listen directly to industry leaders as they chose their priorities for action. STC is coordinating meetings and staffing the partnership and its action teams, ensuring plans are executed and progress is monitored. STC and other community partners received on-site orientation and training on the Next Generation model. In addition, several key partners attended the Next Generation Sector Partnership Academy in Phoenix and Austin to share experiences with peer practitioners and learn more in-depth about how and why the model works. STC has also received technical assistance from one of the national experts on the Next Generation Sector Partnership team.

To date, participants include 25 executives from 13 health care institutions from across the region. Most are CEOs and other senior executives because it is critical that institutional-level decisions are made at the partnership meetings.

CEOs of three local hospital systems are co-chairing this partnership: Cris Rivera of Rio Grande Regional Hospital in McAllen, Leslie Bingham of Valley Baptist Medical Center in Brownsville and Todd Mann of the McAllen Medical Center. The co-chairs formed action teams for the three priority areas and appointed at least one person from their organization to each team. The partnership expected to finalize action plans and begin implementation by early 2018. The partnership represents a major milestone for the region—never before have the leading health care institutions committed to working together and with the community on key needs such as talent.

Priorities for Action

The partnership has three main priorities for driving growth and competitiveness of the region’s health care industry: branding, patient care collaboration and talent. In terms of branding, the partnership seeks to give the RGV region a higher-quality health care profile so that residents want to stay in the region to access medical care, and medical professionals want to stay in the region throughout their careers. The partnership also wants to attract companies and talent to the region. This is more likely to happen if they know their employees and families will have access to good quality health care. To pursue this priority, partnership businesses have brought together their marketing executives who are implementing an approach to develop the shared brand; this includes conducting a design workshop and ultimately retaining a marketing firm to help move the effort forward.

Another of the partnership’s priorities is focused on the region’s “frequent flier” situation. Many residents who lack health insurance or are underinsured go from one emergency room (ER) to another for illnesses instead of to a primary-care physician. By depending on ER care instead of medical prevention and management, patients’ conditions are worsening. At the same time, hospitals face significant financial costs for caring for patients with chronic health problems who have insufficient or no health insurance. And, the additional costs to treat these patients diverts funds that could be used for other priorities, including development of needed talent to grow the industry.

The partnership brought together clinical and other managers at key institutions to identify the target population and design a patient care collaboration project. The initial focus was dialysis patients. A multi-faceted approach has been developed involving grassroots patient education, stronger referral arrangements to community providers and an expansion of in-home dialysis technology and support.

The final priority chosen was talent development because there is a significant shortage of nurses and other allied health care professionals (such as lab technicians, radiology technicians and respiratory therapists).[3]  Without a continuous flow of skilled talent in these and other professions, the sector’s growth will be constrained. These careers pay well and would ideally be filled as much as possible by the diverse population of the region.

The partnership brought together the chief nursing officers and other human resource managers of local institutions to focus first on addressing the nursing shortage. Due to this shortage, hospitals are competing for nurses. Many nurses work their day shifts at one hospital and their night shifts at another hospital. It is difficult to increase the supply of nurses because the RGV region currently has only one Bachelor of Science program in nursing. STC offers an associate degree in nursing. The nursing shortage was exacerbated by the recent loss of Texas Southmost College’s nursing program, and the shortage is projected to grow as the region’s hospitals add beds to meet future demand [4], [5]. Compounding this problem is the difficulty in finding and retaining nursing teachers because they can earn a larger salary as nurses. This problem is national in scope.

To help address the nursing shortage, the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) created an accelerated progression from the bachelor’s program to the master’s program, which includes a $2,000 scholarship. Meanwhile, STC is creating a Bachelor of Science in nursing (BSN) program—made possible in part because of the dozens of letters of support sent to the Texas Legislature by members of the South Texas Health Care Sector Partnership. As they have developed these pathways, educators are seeing that nurses’ education and training opportunities are not fully aligned with businesses’ employment and promotion requirements.

Building on these initial efforts, the partnership has agreed to advance several specific strategies to expand and retain the region’s nursing workforce. These include: a Semi-Dedicated Education Unit (DEU) model and a Shared Clinical Nurse with Advanced Degrees strategy. The Semi-DEU model pairs academic institutions and health care organizations to provide a unique clinical training experience for student nurses. Both strategies are aimed at expanding recruitment, improving retention and increasing the number of nurses that can be trained per teacher.

In addition, the partnership has adopted a four-part strategy to fill the health talent pipeline by targeting and supporting local youth interested in choosing and pursuing health care careers. This includes an emphasis on awareness (raising the visibility about health care careers), assessment (identifying high-potential students through career-coach evaluations), advising (working directly with high-potential students to help them map their career path) and access (prioritizing those students for volunteer opportunities, internships, etc., with local employers).

Opportunity for Career Pathway System Development

This combination of strategies represents a breakthrough for the region, as they are tangible, industry-driven collaborations focused on career pathway system development. Career pathways are a set of education and training programs at successively higher levels of education that align with the employment and promotion requirements of several related occupations in an industry or industries. Often, pathways are developed exclusively and independently by education partners with feedback from employers solicited at the end of the process. In contrast, regions with strong sector partnerships are in a position to use the voice of industry to build career pathway systems, starting with industry and working with multiple institutions and levels of education and training together.  

When regions develop career pathways, it is important to ensure they aren’t simply a collection of academic and training programs and a handful of career pathways. Instead, they need to develop a career-pathway-systems approach—one that involves multiple education levels and institutions and doesn’t let students fall through the cracks because they have the needed support services to enter pathways, progress upwardly, and stop and restart their education and training. Exit points need to be at successively higher levels that lead to self- or family-supporting employment.

In successful career pathway systems, education and training providers should be able to document how many of their program graduates earn the degrees, industry-recognized certifications, and other education and training needed by the industry. They also should be able to document how many graduates are earning a family-sustaining wage.

In the RGV, the health care partnership is focusing initially on nursing career pathways. In some instances, that pathway may start with an emergency medical technician (EMT) certification and proceed to a licensed vocational nurse (LVN) certification, then to an associate’s degree in nursing (or ADN, a technical degree[6]) to a BSN (an academic degree) to a Master of Science in nursing (MSN, a teaching degree).

Education and training are only one part of the pathway. Support services also help students persist along the path. Regional educational institutions are expanding career services offices and are helping faculty members advise students on how to write their resumes, prepare for interviews and connect to internship opportunities. However, educators struggle to provide other support services because they may not know the kind of support needed for their student body and only have limited staff in career services offices to support the region’s many students. The Next Generation Sector Partnership will need to expand its capacity to identify and address students’ most pressing needs—especially those who face barriers such as lack of access to quality English as a second language classes and preparation classes for the General Educational Development exam, transportation, child care, career counseling, financial coaching and individual mentoring.

The region’s career pathways need to be able to help students transfer between education and training institutions as needed. STC hopes to expand this service, but currently only one staff member provides it. Last year, there were only 35 transfer agreements from STC to four-year colleges.

In the South Texas Health Care Sector Partnership, business partners and education and training providers are also discussing how to collaborate to create new opportunities for students to simultaneously improve their education and gain relevant work experience or earn a wage. It is the consensus that on-the-job training, internships and externships (short, practical experiential work experiences) are important.

Overall, the partnership is the critical industry catalyst for career pathway systems development. Without a strong, organized and clear industry voice and commitment, it is difficult for the wide array of education and training institutions to respond as a system instead of independent players. Yet, this is exactly the change that is necessary to meet the urgent and sustained needs in nursing and other health care professions in the RGV.

South Texas IT Sector Partnership

Overview

The IT partnership’s priorities all revolve around the urgent and growing need for talent. Current participants include 17 senior executives from 11 IT companies. The four co-chairs are Jay Leal of Inter National Bank, Adam Pearson of Lone Star Bank, Diana Berger of Netsync Network Solutions and Sebastian Ivanisky of VTX1 Companies. The partnership is supported by STC (as convener) and other community partners.

The partnership is a unique mix of IT-intensive industries. The RGV does not have a dominant IT sector (e.g., software, hardware) but rather has industries such as financial services with a strong IT function; health care, education and other public-sector employers with growing IT talent needs; and a base of smaller companies in software, networking and the like.

The partnership launched in late 2016, identifying four priority areas for action. One is to define and implement a new relationship between IT-intensive industries and the region’s educational institutions to focus on expanding talent in high-priority fields. A second priority is to improve the long-term talent pipeline, and a third priority is to improve talent retention in IT-intensive industries. The fourth priority is to expand broadband capabilities in the region.

Agreeing on Priority Career Pathways

In this nascent partnership, industry leaders noted that it is difficult to focus on shared, critical occupations as a priority because, for example, their requirements could be completely different for positions sharing the same title. The first task the partnership completed was to identify two priority career pathways using a common vocabulary: a programming pathway that could lead to information security analyst or business systems analyst positions, as well as a network technician pathway that could lead to a network engineer position. For each pathway, partnership businesses identified the entry-level technical skills and foundational/soft skills required. The next task, which is underway, is to assess job descriptions in each pathway to see how local businesses are recruiting talent. The partnership has started with the network technician pathway, and has assembled a first synthesis of job descriptions, including network technician levels I, II and III.

The purpose of assembling and agreeing on this statement of industry demand is to approach educators and trainers as an industry and say “now that we are talking the same language, can you educate your students to do x, y and z?” It is important that businesses approach educators and trainers as an industry group because they can offer more job openings and career opportunities as a group than individually. Educators and trainers are seeing the need for improved communication and coordination with the industry because some of their students are not being hired locally.

Pioneering a New Relationship Between Industry and Education: The Regional Advisory Committee

In October 2017, the partnership held its inaugural Regional Advisory Committee meeting with local educators (K-12, community college and university). This model is a break from the traditional program-by-program advisory committee approach, which has not been as effective as the industry would like. Instead, a panel of IT businesses invited representatives from a wide range of institutions and shared their insights on: industry trends (e.g., changing markets, technologies, etc.); details about their two-priority career pathways and entry-level technical and foundational skill requirements for those pathways; and more detailed information about the network technician job descriptions. This gathering enabled educational partners to learn, ask questions and ask for assistance from the industry. Following the session, industry partners have begun working more closely with several regional independent school districts, the UTRGV and STC.

While a modest beginning, the Regional Advisory Committee model was well-received and has good potential. It represents the first step in transforming the relationship between business and education, focusing on a sector that is changing rapidly and requires a close and continuous collaboration with education to ensure students are prepared with the skills needed to enter and advance in well-paying careers.

Notes

This publication is based on information gathered in summer/fall 2017.

  1. For more information, see STC’s website.
  2. For more information, see “Grant Update: Texas Regional STEM Degree Accelerator, Greater Texas Foundation.”
  3. A comprehensive list of careers at medical facilities includes: physician assistant, primary care physician, physician specialist, certified nurse assistant, licensed vocational nurse, registered nurse, respiratory therapist, radiology technician, telemetry technician, occupational therapist, physical therapist, phlebotomist, pharmacy technician, laboratory technician, IT support, care manager, admissions/discharge clerk, dietitian, housekeeper, maintenance worker, security and staff at reception desks, medical records and business offices.
  4. It lost the program because a low percentage of its students passed the industry’s mandatory licensing and registration test. The test is the National Council of State Boards of Nursing’s National Council Licensure Examination test.
  5. Generally, hospitals need one nurse for every four patients.
  6. Students are allowed to sit for the licensing exam (NCLEX) to become a registered nurse after earning an ADN or a BSN degree.
About the Author

Elizabeth Sobel Blum is a senior community development advisor at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.

Acknowledgements

The Dallas Fed is grateful to the staff of the Next Generation Sector Partnership Community of Practice, including Francie Genz, John Melville and Lindsey Woolsey, for their knowledge-sharing and editing contributions. A special thank-you goes to Valerie Gamez, South Texas College, Rio Grande Valley, Texas, for her time and information about the health care and information technology partnership activities.

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