A noisy factory floor was the backdrop for an economic development progress report by the Greater Brownsville Incentives Corporation on April 11.

At a podium set up between giant machines at CK Technologies, a Brownsville automotive parts manufacturer, GBIC Executive Director Mario Lozoya discussed a 2017 bi-national economic development study and what GBIC is doing to implement the report’s recommendations.

Among those recommendations are establishing internships and externships between educational institutions and companies like CK Technologies to help grow the local workforce that industry depends on, he said. Also in the interest of growing the workforce, by steering young people toward a technical trade early on, a program known as P-TECH — Pathways in Technology Early College High School — has been established here, Lozoya said.

“P-TECH now is alive in Texas,” he said. “There are actually about 15 or 16 P-TECH programs in Dallas. South of Dallas there are only two P-TECH programs. They are here in Brownsville, Texas, so it’s a huge opportunity for us to capitalize on programs like that.”

Another resource GBIC is pursuing are Jobs and Education for Texas (JET) grants, which provide funding for educational institutions to purchase equipment to develop career and technical courses.

“We’ve created now an opportunity to share funding from the state to create opportunities for (independent school districts) and local community and technical colleges to buy advanced equipment to do P-TECH in partnership with industries like CK Technologies,” he said.

Lozoya said seven of the last round of 12 JET grants have gone to the Rio Grande Valley. He also noted that CK Technologies, a subsidiary of Michigan-based Cascade Engineering, is just one of the many private partners GBIC is working with, and said the economic development organization has closed on six contracts in the last four months to help various local businesses expand, with 17 more contracts pending.

“We just signed a $2.8 million check for Keppel AmFELS last week to help them recruit local residents for high paying jobs,” Lozoya said.

U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, who also spoke during Thursday’s event, recalled receiving across his desk a few months ago notice that AmFELS “was in dire need of 300 welders and fitters.”

For decades, AmFELS, located at the Port of Brownsville, had maintained an employee base of between 700 and 1,500 on the strength of offshore rig fabrication and repair contracts, he said. With the downtown in the energy market in the last few years, though, that business largely evaporated and the company’s employment numbers “dwindled down quite a bit,” Vela noted.

However, a collaboration among AmFELS, the port, Cameron County, the city of Brownsville and the state resulted in an agreement for AmFELS to build two new ships for a Honolulu-based company, Pasha Hawaii, he said.

“The problem is the workers had already left,” Vela said. “One of the requests that came to my office (was) we need to raise the H2B (visa) caps so we can get more Mexican workers to come take care of this work. I asked myself, why is it that we need Mexican workers to fill 300 jobs?”

The Rio Grande Valley graduates about 20,000 students every year, 12,000 of whom go onto college and 8,000 who don’t, he said.

“It was baffling to me that out of 8,000 students in the Rio Grande Valley that make the decision not to proceed to college, that we could not fill 300 jobs right here,” Vela said.

He said he’s working with GBIC, the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, Texas State Technical College and local school districts to move workforce development forward so Valley industrial employers can hire home-grown workers.

“I know that we have children that are coming out of high school, and who are not going to go to college, who are very capable of doing these jobs,” Vela said. “We just have to do everything we can to make sure that we connect the dots.”

Lozoya said GBIC is supporting a bill in the Legislature that would modernize Career and Technical Education ISD programs in support of industry needs, and intends to create a Valley chapter of the Texas Federation for Advanced Manufacturing Education (TX FAME), an alliance of companies promoting workforce development.

Another goal is construction of an industrial park and manufacturing innovation hub in Brownsville to support business growth in the Valley, he said. Lozoya said the UT System and Texas A&M systems have already committed to the concept, and that he hopes to bring a Mexican university onboard to make it actually bi-national.

The ultimate goal in workforce development and manufacturing innovation is to make Brownsville and the Valley globally competitive, increasing Gross Domestic Product and per capita income locally and regionally, he said.

Improving educational attainment and workforce development is how you get there, Lozoya said. It will require a collaborative effort, he reminded those gathered, who included Joe Esparza, deputy secretary of state, and many business stakeholders.

“We cannot get this done alone,” Lozoya said. “That’s why you are here.”