Inc. Magazine x Amarillo

An Unexpected Team Plans to Supercharge Amarillo's Economic Growth

Business, higher education, and the community at large are working together to heat up everything from commerce to jobs.

In a bold move, Amarillo's businesses, colleges and universities, and overall community are teaming up to fuel growth in the region. The Panhandle Workforce Development Board's Integrated Plan for 2017-2020, a recently released blueprint for the region's economic development, calls out "innovative employment and training opportunities that are developed through the creation of new partnerships" as one of the region's most notable strengths.

Russell Lowery-Hart, president of Amarillo College, was first exposed to the concept while facilitating a year-long study through Panhandle Twenty/20, a community panel. "That's when I realized how symbiotic the relationships were between higher education and the workforce," he says. It became clear to him that the best way to ensure a thriving future for Amarillo was "for all of us to move out of our silos, and figure out how to connect with each other and meet each other's needs."

Collaboration and data sharing

The various segments help each other through a variety of mechanisms and interactions, including advisory committees, community groups, cross-institution collaboration, and data sharing. At Amarillo College, industry-specific advisory committees conduct on-site evaluations. They visit classrooms and labs and indicate if equipment is out of date or if instructional methods need tweaking.

Lowery-Hart regularly visits advisory board members' facilities "to see what they're doing, and make sure I'm connecting the dots on what they need versus what we're providing." In addition, a community group called No Limits No Excuses provides monthly input on community needs and how Amarillo College and its business partners can help meet them.

Along with Amarillo College, West Texas A&M and Texas Tech work collaboratively to fulfill education's role in the symbiosis. "As an education community, we're committed to working with each other to meet the workforce demands of our industry partners," Lowery-Hart says. The effort extends back into secondary education, as well. When the local school district organized students around career clusters, Amarillo College reorganized its programs around the same clusters.

Training to meet employers' needs

A good example of the collaborative nature of relationships between the educational and business communities is the Aerospace Manufacturing Certificate Program at Amarillo College. Formerly known as the Bell Program, it was created specifically to meet the workforce needs of Bell Helicopter, an important local employer.

The program provides technical training to help students qualify for high-tech job opportunities, and the job placement rate for students who complete the program is 84 percent. Bell Helicopter plays a big role in that success. When the company moved to the area, leaders met with Amarillo College to explain the skill sets its employees need. The college created the program in response. Students who complete the program with us are guaranteed a job interview with Bell Helicopter.

Since 2009, Amarillo College has partnered with a helicopter manufacturer to receive nearly $500,000 in state grants to train its current and new hires. Today, 35 percent of the company's workforce are graduates of the Amarillo College-Bell Helicopter partnership.

At OccuNet, which provides risk consulting and medical cost-containment services to industry-leading organizations nationwide, the symbiosis between Amarillo's business and educational communities helps keep its talent pipeline full. Partner Elliot McKinney is a West Texas A&M alumnus, and almost three-quarters of OccuNet's degreed team have been recruited from there and other local colleges. "As we have roles to fill, our primary contacts are the career center and business school," he says. "But we also make it a point to drill down and interact with the professors and students." Those relationships give OccuNet an inside track on highly qualified candidates who return to Amarillo after having spent their early careers elsewhere.

All for one and one for all

The underlying nature of the symbiosis taking place in the Amarillo area is simple. The community wants a healthy and growing economy, citizens want good-paying jobs, and businesses want well-trained employees. Local higher learning institutions are at the center of it all. They provide the training students need to get the available jobs, and they maintain a continuous feedback loop with employers and the community to stay on the right track.

"What we're trying to do in Amarillo is develop this seamless system where industry tells us what they need, and we build a program or training around it and provide the employees who are going to help them be successful," Lowery-Hart says. "That ultimately means that Amarillo College is going to be successful, and the community we all love and live in is going to work."

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