How can San Antonio build the STEM workforce it desperately needs?

The San Antonio Report and San Antonio Woman Magazine have partnered to create a series of three in-depth articles about the STEM ecosystem in San Antonio. This is the first article in this series, examining where STEM opportunities begin: in schools.

Three years ago, Audrie Torres, a ninth-grader in San Antonio, couldn’t have attended a loving medical high school anywhere on the South Side, which would have allowed her to embark on a career in the field. of health.

The 15-year-old should have traveled downtown or to the North Side to attend a similar school – not an option for many in her situation.

“Being more towards the south side of San Antonio, a lot of us college students struggle. We are low income,” said 15-year-old Audrie. “A lot of secondary schools don’t offer as many opportunities.”

CAST Med High School is one of five high schools that make up the Centers of Applied Science and Technology network, all of which focus on careers in STEM-related fields.

As a non-profit organization, the CAST School Network operates its schools in four independent school districts: East Central, Northside, San Antonio and Southwest. Students from across the city can apply to the tuition-free schools, which each serve several hundred students.

The first CAST school opened in 2017 – CAST Tech High – on the former downtown campus of Fox Tech High School, and was designed to serve as an entry point for students into these high-demand fields and to high salaries, said Jeanne Russell, CAST executive director of the network.

To put into context how these jobs are in demand, Workforce Solutions Alamo, which studies workforce trends and connects job seekers to open positions, reports that local employers are looking to hire for jobs related to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), more than any of the other career paths they measure.

The high-growth occupations their analysts have identified run the gamut and include jobs in finance, healthcare, cybersecurity, aerospace and manufacturing. Not all of these jobs require a college education, but most do require some specialized training.

Build a pipeline from scratch

According to many local employers, it has always been difficult to fill STEM positions, and the current ultra-tight job market has made it even more difficult.

For example, CPS Energy, which employs 3,000 people across the city, is struggling to hire engineers, data scientists, accounting professionals, cybersecurity and IT specialists, Lisa Lewis said. , administrative director of the public service.

And San Antonio businesses don’t just compete locally anymore. In a world disrupted by the pandemic, CPS Energy now competes with companies like Apple and Amazon because many workers can now log on from home, Lewis said.

Additionally, potential employees can be even more demanding in this market: labor shortages across the country have made it harder than in the past to find the right person for any role. And for technical jobs that require technical skills, multiply that.

Freshman Audrie Torres interacts with a digital corpse made up of photos of a real person while other students watch CAST Med High School. Credit: Bria Woods/San Antonio Report

In San Antonio, CAST schools are trying to create a local pool of young people ready to fill these sought-after roles.

“When we started CAST, superintendents and business leaders got together and said, especially in parts of our city, nobody is drawing these bonds for students,” Russell said. “We need to build much more intentional bridges.”

For instance, many high school students are already working, so schools should connect them with jobs in fields they want to pursue after high school, she said. This way, students develop networks and relationships that will help them even if they don’t go to college.

From the classroom to the world of work

Connecting San Antonio students from their K-12 schools to STEM fields requires ensuring educators, business leaders and entrepreneurs work together, said Will Garrett, vice president of development and integration. talent and technology in Port San Antonio.

Built on the 1,900-acre site of the former Kelly Air Force Base, Port San Antonio today has more than 80 companies employing more than 12,000 people, primarily in STEM fields such as advanced manufacturing, cybersecurity , global logistics, aerospace and defense.

San Antonio has made great strides toward developing more STEM-focused programs, Garrett said, from colleges to the local community college system and even local four-year universities. But there is an “inherent bureaucracy” in academic institutions that can prevent them from keeping pace with technology and changes in these high-demand fields, he noted.

Of course, no educational effort will matter if young people don’t feel like San Antonio is a place where they can find a fulfilling life and career. It’s a messaging challenge, Garrett said.

CAST is an amazing example of a program that “launch kids into the best of the best universities,” he said. “But how can we make sure that before they leave they understand there’s a career for them here when they’re done?”

The reality today is that more than half of San Antonio high school graduates — 53% — don’t go on to college, according to SA2020.. By focusing only on college graduates, Russell said, “we are missing the majority of our young people. Suppose some of them won’t go to [college]and let’s plan it.

It’s critical to build these schools in a realistic way, Russell said, not for “this kind of mystical middle-class, four-year-old, dorm-living scenario that’s not really true.”

A great opportunity, but for very little

Given the opportunities that exist at CAST schools, it’s no surprise how hard students who are interested in them will work just to get to class.

Ninth grade student Jesus Lopez chose to attend CAST Med because he wants to become an anesthesiologist. Every day he carpools with a friend just to get to the bus route that actually takes him to school.

Each CAST campus employs a partnership coordinator whose job it is to work with industry leaders and non-profit organizations to create opportunities for students, acting as an open door to bring experienced workers into the schools. and expose students to careers that may not require a college degree.

Jeanne Russell, Executive Director of CAST Schools, speaks at a press conference in November.
Jeanne Russell, Executive Director of CAST Schools, speaks at a press conference in November. Credit: Nick Wagner/San Antonio Report

Ensuring CAST students get those opportunities takes a lot of work, Russell acknowledged, “but that’s the intention you have to have.”

In April, the class of approximately 150 seniors from the CAST network met with 19 local employers for the opportunity to obtain a job or an internship, fulfilling the CAST promise that each student will have a job interview before obtaining the diploma.

Collectively, these students have earned over 200 industry-recognized certificates that verify proficiency in a particular skill set, and gained experience in coding, logistics, robotics and more.

“CAST Med really makes you feel like you’re considered a learner instead of just a random name on the checked-in attendance sheet,” Audrie said. “They know my skills and they know my abilities.”

She and Jesus, with the encouragement and guidance of the staff, recently applied to the Max and Minnie Tomerlin Voelcker Academy of Biomedical Research at UT Health San Antonio, a three-year preparatory program for biomedical research.

But they are among the lucky few who are firmly in a favorable pipeline for high-demand, high-paying STEM careers, and will likely have their pick of jobs.

However, only 2,000 students are enrolled in CAST high schools, out of approximately 101,000 high school students in all of Bexar County.

The hope is that CAST schools will act as “idea incubators” for programs and programs that can be implemented in other schools. But that has proven difficult, given that there is no incentive for school districts to create these kinds of opportunities for students.

And while lessons have been learned about what works in San Antonio, there’s still a lot of work to be done.

“Will we ever be there? Garrett asked. “I think work will continue to be cut so that we continue to adapt education, training and practical learning to jobs that come in a year, in three years, in five years.

Michael A. Bynum