Earlier today, Harris County Commissioners voted to approve $9.1 million in funds to expand apprenticeships for in-demand fields in the Houston area. The funding comes as a part of the American Rescue Plan Act.
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo previously announced the approval of $9 million in funds for local apprenticeships in addition to over $13 million for upskilling, such as additional job training and retraining. The county's investment in workforce development over the next two years will total $31.6 million — its largest investment in occupational development to date.
"We have folks who have the ability to take on higher paying jobs in terms of their willingness to build those skills and their willingness to work hard and take those jobs," said Hidalgo. "But they need the opportunity to get there."
The investment is intended to benefit Harris County residents who are unemployed or underemployed, many of whom live in poverty. Currently, an individual who works full-time for the state minimum wage of $7.25 per hour makes around $15,000 per year — $10,000 below the federal poverty line for a family of four. According to data from 2021, 16.4% of Harris County residents live in poverty. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the national average is 11.6%. Hidalgo hopes the investment will allow low-income residents to advance economically.
"There are folks that are in careers below their ability level," said Hidalgo. "They need upskilling and retraining to take those higher-paying jobs."
The $9.1 million investment approved today is projected to fund an estimated 800 apprenticeships in Harris County over the next 2 years, many of which are intended to create jobs in green energy, such as maintenance of low emissions and electric vehicles and transit buses. The $13.6 million dedicated to upskilling will provide additional occupational training for approximately 650 Harris County residents, largely to fill in-demand positions like nurses and truck drivers.
Research indicates apprenticeship and skill development programs meaningfully contribute to local economies and increase per capita income. In a 2015 report, Washington state estimated that for every dollar it spent on apprenticeship programs, taxpayers saved $23.
"Workers who complete an apprenticeship program will make an average of $240,000 more over the course of their lifetimes than comparable job seekers," said Hidalgo. The county predicts 85% of participants will complete the program and retain employment at its conclusion.
This initiative is the most recent in a number of measures taken by the county in the last few years to promote economic empowerment. In 2019, the minimum wage for county employees and construction contractors was raised to $15 per hour. Additionally, in March 2022, Harris County Commissioners Court established the Harris County Essential Workers Board. "We've created the first ever county-level essential workers' board in the nation to give workers a say at the decision-making table," said Hidalgo. The board consists of essential workers in various industries who advise the county's Department of Economic Equity and Opportunity.
The goal of the recently approved investment is to uplift marginalized communities, including those without high levels of formalized education. "We're investing in economic opportunity," said Hidalgo. "But we're also opening the doors of opportunity to more residents, regardless of whether or not they want to go to college, regardless of education level."