Driving Outcomes in Rural Texas

The Coastal Bend of Texas is a unique corner of the Lone Star State -- a 13,900-square-mile crescent that encompasses 13 counties near and bordering the Gulf of Mexico. The heart of the region is Corpus Christi, a city of 350,000 that is among the busiest ports in the country. A center of petrochemical manufacturing, it exports more crude oil than anywhere in the nation and is expected to draw an estimated $10 billion in investment over the next 10 years.

But several of the counties in this expansive region are a world away from the vitality and prosperity of its largest city. Remote, isolated and separated from their own small cities by mesquite scrubland and sprawling cattle ranches, these are places where educational attainment is low, good jobs are few and poverty is high.

The inland counties of Jim Wells, Brooks and Duval are the focus of efforts by Upskill Coastal Bend, a partnership of non-profits, educational institutions, businesses and others who are working to boost education and training for the residents of these counties so they can meet the demand for skilled workers not just in Corpus Christi but with employers they hope to attract closer to home.

“These counties are furthest away geographically from the population center, and you have to believe that geography is impacting access,” says Jeffrey West, executive director of Education to Employment Partners (E2E), which is the backbone organization and fiscal agent for Upskill Coastal Bend. “Major universities, community colleges – they are all very far away from these areas.”

Upskill Coastal Bend, which takes in a total of 11 counties, is focused on the six rural counties that are farthest from the population centers. As a partner in CivicLab’s Building Rural Community Systems initiative, they are first zeroing in on the three counties with the greatest need to build systems that provide for better educational attainment and workforce development.

Poverty in this region is acute. In Brooks County, the median household income is $18,622, and 40 percent live below the poverty line; in Duval County, it is 22,416 for a household. In both counties, 40 percent live below the poverty line. Jim Wells County fares better with a median household income of $28,843, but 24 percent of its residents still live below the poverty line. (By comparison, the median household income for Texas overall is $60,826.)

Educational attainment, accordingly, is markedly low. In Duval County, just 15 percent of residents hold a degree or credential beyond high school, and in Brooks County and Wells County, just 16 percent do. Those figures stand in sharp contrast to attainment levels for Texas overall, where 34.9 percent of residents have a postsecondary credential.

“There are jobs in these areas, and there are employers who need skilled workforces, but unfortunately that skilled workforce doesn’t exist right now.

This region of the Coastal Bend is heavily Hispanic (more than 85 percent of the population in all three counties), with most residents living in multi-family households. And while not a big problem for the area’s younger residents, the English language presents challenges to entering education and workforce pathways for many first-generation immigrants. But more than difficulty speaking English, West says, a barrier is literacy and numeracy in general.

(On top of these struggles, the coffers of Brooks County have been strained by a problem unique to the region: the influx of migrants who have made it across the Mexican border and try to evade a second, internal checkpoint in the Brooks County seat of Falfurrias. The journey through 30 to 50 miles of scrubland is treacherous: It has claimed the lives of more than 8,000 migrants since 1994.)* 

Area leaders want to attract, expand and retain businesses here, but they are faced with a classic chicken-and-egg situation. “It’s a catch 22 because many employers want to see a talent pipeline well before they will invest in an area. So we almost have to concurrently train and prepare the workforce while at the same time recruiting employers.”

So one of goals of Upskill Coastal Bend is to provide education and training for the jobs that already exist here. In the three-county area that means opportunities in construction, manufacturing, healthcare, information technology, city and county government and K-12 education. (Ranching is also a prominent enterprise, but the demand for workers is often relatively low, and the jobs don’t pay a living wage.)

“There are jobs in these areas, and there are employers who need skilled workforces, but unfortunately that skilled workforce doesn’t exist right now,” says West. “So we need to strengthen [the workforce] before we can start incubating and developing strategies to accelerate economic development.”

In Brooks County, Upskill Coastal Bend is concentrating its efforts in Falfurrias (pop. 4,911), which has been steadily losing population and businesses in recent years. The city council recently funded an economic development incubator to be headquartered in a shuttered Dollar Store that is being renovated for the purpose. It will now serve as a center for postsecondary and vocational training, and as a space for new businesses and community events.

In Duval County, the partnership is focusing on a few small cities with the help of a county judge to help justice-involved individuals as part of its larger work. And in Jim Wells County, the target is the county seat of Alice, whose boom and bust fortunes over the years have been tied to the shale oil business. The city has stabilized somewhat since the devastating effects of the Great Recession, but city leaders know a secure economic future depends on industry diversification.

Alice has a lot of folks who didn't go to college, who went to work in the oil field, and had to come back and get a job just to pay the bills and never considered education or careers until recently.” says West.

So in Alice and elsewhere, Upskill Coastal Bend is serving populations at four different stages of their educational paths. Young adults who dropped out of high school will get help earning their GEDs, as well as guidance for continuing beyond. High school graduates will get assistance to secure a place at a two- or four-year college or a certificate program. High school graduates who stopped out of a postsecondary program will get the help they need to come back and complete. And individuals who do have a postsecondary credential, but who are unemployed, will get opportunities to train for new jobs with more promising futures or better pay.

“Our guiding question is how can we really, truly improve equitable access for residents of these three counties, and how can we not do it ourselves, but activate all stakeholders to do it?” says West. In addition to E2E, Upskill Coastal Bend’s guiding team for these three targeted counties is made up of the Coastal Bend Council of Governments, Coastal Bend College, Crossroads Adult Education & Literacy, Texas A&M University at Kingsville, and Workforce Solutions Coastal Bend and Craft Training Center. A number of other organizations, institutions, and local governments make up the larger network.

All these stakeholders are being activated through the work that Upskill Coastal Bend is doing with CivicLab’s Building Rural Community Systems initiative. “We are trying to map this all out and truly identify all the systems to figure out who is doing what,” West says. “From that process we learned that we have a lot of great organizations serving adult learners, but they were kind of doing things on their own; they weren’t connecting strategically. We are trying to bring things together so that the individual learner finds it more seamless.”

UpSkill Coastal Bends works together to visualize the current education and workforce system.

Toward that end, Coastal Bend is hiring a navigator in Brooks County to help students through their education and training, making sure they get the support they need to complete their certificates or degrees. The Coastal Bend team envisions stand-alone educational workforce centers in each of the three counties, staffed with county-wide experts on enrollment, pathways, advising and tailored supports. “The most important part of this model is having someone on the ground working with people one-on-one,” West says.

Sustainable funding is an ongoing challenge, but overall, West says, “We are really encouraged to see stakeholders working together and the colleges working together – not competing but collaborating. Stakeholders are breaking out of their silos and contributing on behalf of the region, as opposed to their institutional interests. That to me is a win.”

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*According to the recent PBS documentary “Missing in Brooks County.

This piece was produced by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Susan Headden.  Susan is a contributing author to CivicLab, a former senior editor at “U.S. News & World Report” magazine, and a freelance education writer based in Washington, D.C.