Local training program receives $300k from Texas Workforce Commission

  • TWC Commissioner Robert Thomas
    TWC Commissioner Robert Thomas

The Texas Workforce Commission (TWC) has awarded Digital Workforce Academy Inc. (DWA) a $302,633 Self Sufficiency Fund training grant to help 150 individuals transition into the workforce by providing job skills in fields such as pipefitting and carpentry.

DWA works in collaboration with Lamar University and Lamar Institute of Technology, offering training in soft skills and work readiness before sending students into classrooms or into the field unprepared.

TWC Commissioner Representing the Public Robert Thomas was in Beaumont at the Lamar University Center for Innovation, Commercialization and Entrepreneurship (CICE) on March 14 to present DWA founder Melvin White with a check that White says will change lives and provide many area businesses with a well-trained workforce.

“This occasion is very unique because we have the opportunity to impact the lives of people in Southeast Texas,” said White. “As many of you know, there is $50-plus billion in expansion work in the area in the petrochemical industry. But on the other hand, there is a double-digit unemployment rate in our region… It’s an awesome, awesome opportunity to change lives in the community.”

White has been in the business of changing lives for more than a decade, he described, always looking for ways to open up opportunities to the whole community, and especially to those who need it most. The grant for DWA targets applicants who have been on some type of government assistance or have had other struggles in their lives that have made it difficult to attain employment. One of DWA’s students who will benefit from the program is James McCray, who was released from prison four months ago after 11 years.

“It’s been a real downfall for me, so I’m trying to get myself back together,” McCray said. “I was younger. I realize what life is really all about now. I’m trying to better myself, and when I ran across this opportunity (with Digital Workforce Academy), I had to get on it… I’m trying to better myself because life is really hard out there if you’re not trying to succeed. It’s really been hard for me and my family… I’m trying to be a father and at the same time accomplish things, too. I just wanted to share that with y’all because everybody goes through their own set of trials and tribulations.”

According to White, that is exactly why the grant is so meaningful to so many.

“We have been here 12 years doing workforce training, and the self-sufficiency grant is specifically one that targets a population that we target,” said White. “We have the opportunity to make a major impact in our economy with populations that never had the confidence, may have been unemployed, underemployed, barriers in their lives. That’s the significance of this grant. We have to give people confidence and give them the basic skills to allow them to move up and become self-sufficient and empower their children, their families and contribute to their communities.”

Commissioner Thomas said TWC is dedicated to creating opportunities, which is why DWA was chosen for the substantial grant, and that he was proud to be “a champion” for people who want to better their lives.

“We are fortunate as Texans to have a person who passionately believes that empowering people, like Mr. White empowering this organization, empowering Lamar University, empowering all of the entities and organizations that are focusing on making a difference, including people in this room right now, knowing that that’s what matters,” said Thomas. “On behalf of the governor of the state of Texas… and on behalf of almost 5,000 employees of the Texas Workforce Commission, please know that we are very proud to be your partners.”

The grant funding from the Self Sufficiency Fund will assist in developing the technical education and learning environment that will lead to industry recognized certificates and credentials. It provides funding to eligible training providers, including nonprofit 501(c)(3) community-based organizations, Texas public community or technical colleges or the Texas Engineering Extension Service. The fund pays for curriculum development, instructor fees and certifications, training materials, certain work-related expenses for trainees and some training equipment for targeted industry clusters. In fiscal year 2018, the Self Sufficiency Fund grant program awarded over $1.9 million dollars to train 919 Texans.

“Our economy is only as strong as the opportunities presented to our most at-risk Texans,” said Thomas. “With this Self Sufficiency grant, Digital Workforce Academy Inc. will empower Southeast Texas students to develop the tools they need to enjoy life-long careers and financial stability.”

“We are working in conjunction with the Workforce to better help us to reach these goals of the people who need this self-sufficiency grant,” said DWA program director Caroline Brandon. “Our goal is to help our city, our counties, our people, because our people need us.That’s why we’re here.

“With all these expansions coming, we want to make sure that our people are trained and get these local jobs, (and) they stay in our community so that we can rebuild our communities.”

White lauded LU and LIT as DWA’s “strategic partners” in workforce training.

“For the first time, you have a university, two-year college and a community-based organization working innovatively to target populations that felt like they’ve been left behind,” said White.

LU CICE director Paul Latiolais also praised the unprecedented partnership.

“We’re very excited about the partnership,” Latiolais told the group. “This is the first time that we’re aware of that a four-year university or a two-year anniversary worked with a boots-on-the-ground organization that really gets out into the community and works with it. Melvin and I started working together almost four years ago in earnest on this project… He’s been involved in food banks, and churches, houses of worship, just bringing people together and making a real difference for people.”

He said that while the training is free for those who qualify for the grant, “They pay for it by staying in the program.”

“I’ve never seen such a dedicated group of folks coming through the program to make it all work,” said Latiolais. “We’re working with industry now. We’re working with our partners across the community. We really want this to be a very broad regional effect, and we’re off to a great start.”

LIT Vice President for Strategic Initiatives David P. Mosley said DWA provides preparatory training that was not previously available.

“That career ladder has been missing the first couple of rungs, and that’s exactly what Melvin White brings to this partnership,” said Mosley. “The system works for people who are in the system, but outside of that system, we didn’t have those first two steps, which are career readiness (and) soft skills that are needed.”

Without that training, he added, “You don’t even know what you don’t know to begin to partake in the economic expansion that we’re seeing in this area. So, my hat’s off to Melvin.”

As “the premier technical education institute in Southeast Texas,” LIT boasts 73,802 annual unduplicated students with outcomes in salary that are nationally recognized, said Mosley. LIT was named No. 1 in the state of Texas by Department of Education for median salaries at $46,700, and were recently picked up by the American Enterprise Institute for three programs with over $1 million return on investment.

Representatives of area businesses looking for trained employees attended the check presentation to support the grant, which will increase the skilled workforce in Southeast Texas.

Zachry talent acquisition manager Delieca Ladue-White said, “We’re 100 percent on board with what (White) is doing, and we feel that we have a place that we can put these folks that are coming out of these programs.”

Workforce Solutions board member Verna Rutherford of Motiva said she saw White’s revitalization program in Austin in 2007 and hoped he would one day move to Port Arthur to bring their community back to life. Later that same year, that is exactly what he did in September 2007, she said.

“The dream that they had was to help bring Melvin here, to Port Arthur, because we did have such a great need in our community,” Rutherford described. “I had the great fortune of being able to work with Melvin throughout the crude expansion project from 2007 to 2012. As the trainees completed and went through the graduation ceremony, our contractors were able to go to the graduations and literally hire that evening.”

In addition to receiving the grant on March 14, White said he received yet more good news a few days earlier.

“We submitted an application to the apprenticeship program for the Department of Labor in September of last year… I am happy to say that, as of Monday (March 11), we have been approved for the apprenticeship program through the Dept. of Labor.”

White said that means graduates of the apprenticeship program will become journeyman and are guaranteed jobs by the companies sponsoring them.

James Carnes of the U.S. Dept. of Labor said the apprenticeship program would suit Southeast Texas well due to booming expansion in the area.

“When I think of the Golden Triangle, I think of nothing but potential,” Carnes described. “I think we are looking at a Renaissance here that is occurring within the Golden Triangle… We will bring, from the department, any resource that we have available to support you… We fully support your endeavor.”

Thomas agreed and said no one should be left behind with the excellent economic opportunities coming this way.

“This community is working so very hard to take care of and support every single member of the community, and that starts with the young man here today and goes for all other groups of people,” said Thomas. “It’s all about the young people who are looking for a second chance, all of the people that are trying to be healthy and active and have careers so that they can be productive citizens. This community is doing so much in this state, a shining example of working collaboratively, working outside of the box, thinking differently about ways to reach that community.”

“Applying is the first step in getting into the program,” said White. “There is also a grant available for Harvey-affected people.”

He encourages anyone interested to apply. To apply to receive training through the Self Sufficiency grant or other numerous funding opportunities available through DWA, visit the website at www.lamar.edu/commercializationcenter/index.html, stop by the Beaumont office at 5091 Rolfe Christopher Drive on the Lamar University campus and pick up an application, or go to 617 Procter St. in Port Arthur to fill out an application.

Sharon Brooks