At 19, Dalton Sasin’s wizardry with a welding wand is taking him places. This month, he begins a 20-week specialized welding training program in Port Arthur with Cheniere Energy, who recruited him right out of high school.
“It’s extra training that’s going to help me down the road, so I’m looking forward to it,” said Sasin, who learned to weld in classes at Ingleside High School. “I’m glad I went into the program. Now I’m getting a career out of it.”
Once he completes the Cheniere training, which he said pays $23.50 per hour plus a $60 per diem, Sasin plans to complete his associate degree in welding at Del Mar College. He then hopes to be hired by Cheniere at their multi-billion-dollar liquefied natural gas facility in the nearby city of Portland.
Around the corner from Ingleside High School’s welding bays are the industrial instrumentation classroom and lab where students like John Nichols are learning the fine points of electrical circuitry, pressure, level and flow.
“After high school, I’m going to continue at Del Mar, get my certificate and get a job at a plant as an operator,” said Nichols, 17, a senior who takes a bus to the class from neighboring Gregory-Portland High School.
Nichols and his classmates know that, with the right certifications and two-year technical degrees, chances are good they’ll be hired by the refineries, petrochemical plants and other industrial facilities in the area, where starting salaries may range from $60,000 to $70,000 per year.
This is San Patricio County, home to just over 66,000 people and measuring 693 square miles on the Texas Gulf Coast. Due to its location near the Port of Corpus Christi, the fifth largest port in the country in total tonnage, the county is also home to a seemingly endless number of industries looking to hire from the local workforce.
Del Mar College, just over the Harbor Bridge in Nueces County, has for several years worked proactively with area industries and the independent school districts (ISDs) in San Patricio County to establish workforce and technical training programs in the high schools, such as welding, industrial instrumentation and process technology.
But the pipeline of companies coming into the county and a booming economy necessitated a more formal organization between the seven ISDs and the college.
On June 1, they all joined in Portland for the first meeting of the San Patricio County Workforce Development Consortium.
“Del Mar College is the hub and the school districts are the spokes in the wheel,” said Paul Clore, Gregory-Portland ISD superintendent. “All of us will be looking to Del Mar to identify the skills and programs we should be providing so that we do things in the right order as we go forward.”
Created under inter-local agreement, the consortium provides an organized structure that will help the ISDs work more closely together to develop career and technical programs that precisely meet industry needs.
College’s critical role
As the fiscal manager of the consortium, Del Mar will work with the ISDs to seek funding through grants, donations from industry partners and other sources to make the programs possible.
“We work with business and industry to know what the workforce needs are in the community,” said Lenora Keas, the college’s vice president of workforce development and strategic initiatives. “It’s fulfilling our mission to provide workforce training.
“The consortium is unique in San Patricio County,” she added. “It may be unique in the state.”
Funding for a workforce training program can be hard to come by, especially in the county’s small, rural school districts, Keas said. That’s where the consortium is already bearing fruit.
In May, Del Mar helped Odem-Edroy ISD obtain a $264,000 grant from the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC) to restart a certified nurse aide (CNA) program at Odem High School.
“The healthcare field has always been of interest to our students here in Odem,” said Lisa A. Gonzales, Odem-Edroy ISD superintendent. “Right now we’re sending CNA students to Del Mar. With our grant, we can get the CNA lab back on our campus with an embedded instructor.”
The TWC’s Jobs and Education for Texans grants are awarded to public community and technical colleges and independent school districts for programs that focus on supporting high-demand occupations.
CNAs are in demand in hospitals, long-term nursing facilities and mental health settings, where they care for patients and residents. Employment in the field is predicted to grow more than 30 percent, according to the TWC.
The CNA program is also a first step toward a career as a registered nurse.
Del Mar assists the ISDs in other ways, too, including finding instructors with proper technical certifications to teach the courses and ensuring resources are shared. San Patricio County high schools commonly share workforce training programs by transporting students from one campus to another.
“Sharing services gives students a better chance to get the training they need without changing schools,” said San Patricio County Judge Terry Simpson. “That’s the value of this consortium…all the school districts are working together for the betterment of the students.”
Besides career training, school districts want their students to have local career options.
“We want to meet the industries’ needs in our area and give our kids training so they’ll stay here,” said Troy Mircovich, Ingleside ISD superintendent.
While Ingleside ISD fills the need for industrial instrumentation training in the county, Gregory-Portland ISD’s niche is process technology. Both programs offer skills that are sought after in the refining, petrochemical and manufacturing industries.
Enrollment in welding courses is strong enough that both high schools can offer the program, administrators said.
Dual credit advantage
Another benefit for San Pat County students: The programs are dual credit, meaning they count toward certificates and degrees at Del Mar.
“That equates to a lot less student loan debt because the ISD is paying for the classes while they’re in high school,” said Catherine Teel, college and career counselor at Gregory-Portland High School. “With process technology, if they start it during high school, they can finish their associate degree in less than two years after graduating.”
The consortium has its work cut out for it as the list of companies setting up shop or expanding operations in San Patricio County grows. Many of them, intent on hiring Del Mar graduates, contributed funding and expertise to get the high school training programs started.
ExxonMobil/SABIC, soon to be the county’s newest industrial resident, recently solidified plans to build what ultimately will be the world’s largest ethylene production plant on a 1,300-acre parcel.
“We’re committed to hiring locally because local people tend to stay,” said John Mabry, manager with Gulf Coast Growth Venture Project, a joint venture of ExxonMobil/SABIC.
The ExxonMobil/SABIC facility is expected to create about 600 permanent jobs that pay an average of $90,000 per year, Mabry said, and the company has already visited Del Mar to review some of the workforce training programs.
“The one that excites me the most is process technology,” Mabry said. “We’ve looked at the program and the textbooks, and the training is spot-on to what we will need.”
The consortium has plenty of success to build on as the economy continues to boom in the county.
“A trained workforce is a critical component of economic growth,” said Foster Edwards, executive director of the San Patricio Economic Development Corporation. “This is a huge cooperative effort. It’s really a great thing to see.”