Frank Pena doesn’t have much time to chat, because he’s repairing a jet engine. The 24-year-old technician at Lockheed Martin is a big guy, but even he looks tiny compared with some of the engines—from the Air Force’s C-5 to the commercial 727—arrayed in the factory. Pena is here, and not flipping burgers at McDonalds, because of a decision he made when he was a sophomore in high school. He enrolled in the Alamo Area Aerospace Academy.
“They wish they’d done the same thing I did,” Pena says of his high school friends, some of whom are working in low-paying service jobs. San Antonio’s four industry-driven Alamo Academies are demanding programs that leave almost no time for extracurricular activities, like band or football. But Academy graduates leave high school with half the credits they need for an associate’s degree, with solid work experience, and—if they’re lucky—a job offer from a major corporation.
San Antonio has a relatively young population, but what it lacks is a highly educated population. In 2009, the graduation rate for the city’s public high schools was 75 percent. And less than one-quarter of San Antonio residents have a bachelor’s degree or higher, lower than the state average of 26 percent.
“It’s less educated than its competitor cities, and it has a higher high school dropout rate,” says Keith Phillips of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. “That’s a big challenge for San Antonio. As employers demand more and more skills, San Antonio has got to provide more and more skills.”
Job-skills training is a popular policy issue in the wake of the Great Recession—President Obama made it a centerpiece of his reelection campaign, and House Republicans have pledged to make federal job-training programs a priority in the current Congress. Yet the Alamo Academies got their start in the early 2000s, an inauspicious time for vocational education nationally, and particularly in Texas. As Texas governor and then as president, George W. Bush focused on accountability testing in education. Getting kids to pass academic tests and make it into a four-year college remains a priority for schools here, but the success of the Alamo Academies is turning heads.
The Aerospace Academy began because Lockheed Martin had a problem: Workers were reaching retirement age. San Antonio had long been a center of heavy-aircraft maintenance, thanks to its local Air Force bases. But no pipeline existed to encourage and train young people to enter the field.
Chosen excerpts by Job Market Monitor