How El Paso Added $500 Million to the Local Economy

February 27, 2014
General Foundation

Four million open jobs exist throughout the United Sates due, in part, to a workforce that lacks the skills needed by the business community. As executive vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, one of my responsibilities is to lead on education reform, workforce development, and the skills gap. Education and workforce development has been an important issue for me ever since a chance encounter in Texas nearly 15 years ago.

In 1998, when I was CEO of Chase Bank in El Paso, I was approached by local civic and religious leaders who were concerned with the education system in the community and the future of young people in the area. Many high school graduates and those with high school equivalency diplomas were only able to read on a 4th grade to 8th grade level. Too few could actually read on a 10th grade level—a minimum for college work.

Sr. Pearl Ceasar, Rev. Dr. Ed Roden-Lucero, Joe Rubio, and a few organizers from the El Paso Interreligious Sponsoring Organization were proposing a “high skills” job training program for “in demand” skills (with job openings) for El Paso’s high school graduates. If it worked, people earning the minimum wage of $6.10 an hour would receive $10.50 an hour.

We began the process by asking the Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce to assess which occupations the local business community was struggling to find qualified applicants. To train people for the jobs, we created an academy that provides remediation to those who could be brought to a 10th grade level in six months. For those who were successful, we helped enroll them in a two-year program at the local community college.

Then, we needed to identify a funding stream. Who would pay to have hundreds of El Pasoans attend two years of college at an average cost of $10,000 per student?  We believed that the state of Texas could help. After several trips to Austin, we secured a $2 million grant for three years from Wagner Peyser, the governor’s discretionary fund.  The city and county of El Paso and the local business community also provided funding.

As prospective students began signing up and qualifying for the program, we realized that their needs were far greater than just an education. Many were women with families who needed help with child care, transportation, and other social services. Organizations, such as the YWCA and the United Way, got on board.

The program titled “Project Advanced Retraining & Redevelopment Initiative in Boarder Areas” (ARRIBA) was officially launched on December 16, 1998. Since that time, ARRIBA has contributed nearly half a billion dollars to the local economy. Additionally, it has an ROI of $26.36 for every dollar invested and has placed 93% of its graduates in jobs. The average annual starting salary for graduates is $43,000, with employment concentrated in nursing, health care, and education.

This spring, Project ARRIBA will graduate its 1,000th student. Little did I know that when I was approached by civic and religious leaders in El Paso 15 years ago, that this program would become an economic engine for the community.

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Reposted from Education & Workforce.