Weslaco school counselors learn what skills local employers need

WESLACO — A group of about 20 high school counselors took on the role of students Thursday and joined the Weslaco Economic Development Corporation in a tour of local businesses to learn more about skills needs of the local employers.

“While most public education targets the majority of their work in graduating students and preparing them for college, there are a small percentage of students who don’t go to college right away or can’t,” said Steven Valdez, Weslaco EDC director. “It’s a matter of helping the student, who we consider the Ready Workforce, and allow them to become more aware of the industries that are here and hiring the level of skill they bring to the table.”

Valdez led the team of Weslaco school district counselors in visits to the H-E-B Distribution Center, ColiMex Cold Storage Facility and Maverick Industrial Laundry Services, where they spoke to owners, sales representatives and managers about the overall business and what type of skilled labor they employ. The counselors can then use the information to better prepare students to transition into the workforce.

This is the first of many tours that the EDC plans to conduct, he said, as they pilot the initiative and grow it according to feedback and interest from both industry and counselors.

For Rick Cortez, of Weslaco, this was an opportunity to show counselors how the business he and his brother Jay Cortez started 19 years ago has been evolving as far as workforce. The two own Maverick Industrial Laundry Services, which mainly contracts with hospitals across the Rio Grande Valley for laundry and dry cleaning services, washing, folding and processing about 40,000 pounds of linens per day.

Like many other businesses, Rick Cortez said theirs has been evolving over the years adding more computerized systems and other tracking technology that helps them sort the orders. Handling paper invoices or orders has been a thing of the past for a while now, he said, as all of their drivers now rely on a phone application when picking up and delivering orders.

“Right now we have a process in which we are using radio frequency (identification) chips,” Cortez said. “It’s a little bitty chip that we sew on to anything we want so that we know every time it comes through this plant . We know how many times it’s been washed, how many times it’s been serviced. … I can tell you that at 9 o’clock it came into this plant and at 7 o’clock it left and went to that hospital. All of that relies on a computer and on someone’s ability to keep it running.”

At Colimex, there was also a wide array of positions that could turn into careers, said sales representative Erika Anguiano — from truck drivers, to sales and warehouse workers. The company mainly focuses on receiving and delivering produce from México, primarily to the food service industry.

“A lot of people in the Mid-Valley are not aware of the impact that our industry has on the Rio Grande Valley,” Anguiano told the counselors during their visit. “Students could go into food safety … some of these people are their own bosses.”

In Texas, in order to graduate every student must now choose a career plan as they enter high school. Counselors help guide students in the selection process, whether they plan to go to college or not. The endorsements, or paths, include business and industry; arts and humanities; multidisciplinary studies; public services and STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

“Our counselors are having to work a lot with different graduation plans and those plans are tied to endorsements, which are tied to careers, so we want to expose our counselors to the different careers available in the community to better educate students,” said Norma Brewer, student support services director with the Weslaco school district. “It’s mainly exposure and tying what’s available in our community with the endorsement plans that students need to fulfill in order to graduate.”

After this initial visit, Valdez and Weslaco EDC Executive Director Marie McDermott will seek feedback from counselors to put together a wider plan of action and reach out to other companies in the region, and plan to include neighboring cities that don’t have their own EDC.

For now, the fact that the Weslaco school district had initially committed to taking 15 counselors but ended up with a group of 20, could be a good sign.

“It’s interesting for us to see what Weslaco has to offer,” said Carey Boleach, head counselor at Weslaco East. “We know that there are businesses here, but we don’t know what they do or the opportunities that they have. Both of the businesses that we have visited so far have told us ‘This is what job opportunities we have for your students,’ so it’s specifically telling us what opportunities they have, what they can expect to make and what kind of work they are expected to do.”