“A country that lends itself to bigness”: The Texas-Size Importance of Higher Ed’s Role in Rural Workforce Development
It’s somewhat difficult to locate the city of Lubbock, Texas, and its roughly 230,000 residents, within the massive 131,000 square mile region of West Texas. As Texas Tech University’s first president, Paul W. Horn, once described the region, “It is a country that lends itself to bigness."
Lubbock is home to Texas Tech University (TTU), which has eight satellite campuses located within the “bigness” of the West Texas region: Abilene, Amarillo, El Paso, Fredericksburg, Highland Lakes, Junction, Midland, and Odessa. While you may not be familiar with these towns, you are probably familiar with the problems that face their workforces. They are the same challenges many rural communities across the country continually face: skills gaps, untapped workforce potential, population migration, and lack of human capital and resources. However, with the help of a higher education institution, these towns positioned themselves to combat these challenges as they looked to improve their workforce systems.
Abilene and Fredericksburg were two of the first towns to engage with TTU about their workforce development challenges at the turn of the 21st century. Although both were located in West Texas, the workforce needs of the communities were vastly different. While Abilene sought to develop their computer science and human-centered computing fields, Fredericksburg wanted to pursue growth in health care, tourism, and education fields.
In 2000, TTU launched a strategic plan called “A Clear Vision for the Future” that was created in response to towns, such as Abilene and Fredericksburg, seeking assistance with their workforce development and economic sustainability. The goal of the plan was expansion, both academic and economic, and the partnership aimed to not only benefit the development of communities in West Texas, but also expand TTU’s influence within the state and increase access to and enrollment of underrepresented student populations.
By 2005, 17 degree programs were developed across four campuses, two of which were located in Abilene and Fredericksburg, with both undergraduate and graduate degree programs focusing on the regional workforce needs of educational leadership, health care, and computer science. Today, TTU offers degrees in 150 fields of study at 13 colleges, a majority of which are located in West Texas.
Almost 20 years later, this partnership still exemplifies how the resources that higher education institutions possess can catapult a rural community's workforce into the future and even today it shows no signs of slowing down.
Earlier this year, the Lubbock Chamber of Commerce, with support from other chambers in West Texas, wrote a letter to the Texas Legislature asking for full funding for a new School of Veterinary Medicine, located at the TTU-Amarillo campus. In short, the letter explained that the region can no longer depend on one veterinarian school in the state to produce the qualified professionals needed to meet the demand of the agricultural, ranching, and livestock industries that are “vital to the Texas economy.”
In June, the Texas Legislature officially included $17 million in its budget to support the operational needs of the school. With the development of TTU’s School of Veterinary Medicine, a school that, according to Lubbock Chamber of Commerce’s Director of Government Relations, Kyle Jacobson, will be the first new veterinarian institution in the state in more than 100 years, regional workforce demands of West Texas will start being met in the coming years.
Seeking the help of educational partners that have the resources and means to enrich the human capital within a rural region highlights the potential that higher education and rural community collaborations possess. A question many rural communities may ask is – how and why do we need to engage with higher education institutions? The answer is simple, but requires maximum effort and awareness by both parties.
- Look to the Future: Communities must feel comfortable requesting help from their local educational institutions. If there is an obvious skills gap that needs to be addressed, start the conversation with local institutions to identify if they are capable of providing workforces with the skills that will support them into the future.
- Higher Education Institutions Create Rich Human Capital: No matter the size or scope of the institution, all members of the higher education community share the common goal of increasing the capacity of their students. Rural communities are always looking for capable individuals. Higher education can provide and properly prepare them for the business areas in need and help rural communities battle against current workforce challenges.
- A Seat at the Table: The Chamber Foundation’s Talent Pipeline Management® (TPM) initiative explains how and why higher education institutions are stakeholders in the workforce development conversation. DTE Energy Detroit, a product of TPM, is a recent example of the power that higher education holds by assisting workforces with skills acquisition, creating qualified professionals, and fostering relationships with local businesses.