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Op-Ed: Creating a Path to Opportunity for Austin’s At-Risk Students

By Barb Clapp and Gretchen Riehl in Austin Journal


Sometimes it’s just one of those days. Maybe your car won’t start when you’re already late to an important meeting or your toddler gets sick at the most inconvenient moment. These little hurdles can add up to a chaotic day for anyone, but for many of our neighbors, the impact of these hurdles — from transportation to canceled childcare — runs much deeper.

Especially for those from at-risk communities, seemingly small everyday problems can stack up, keeping many from being able to make it to the classes or job training they need to earn a professional certificate for a well-paying job. One bad break shouldn’t be enough to knock anyone off the path to opportunity, yet far too often, this is the reality of many who are just trying to get by one day at a time. 

This session, the state made significant progress in helping Texans overcome these obstacles. House Bill 8, which had broad bipartisan support, rewards community colleges with funding, based on the number of students who complete a degree or certificate. Dozens of community colleges already offer programs where students can earn credentials in myriad areas like health care. Now, with added financial incentives to see them through, we can train workers to fill the jobs that increasingly drive our economy, while empowering members of our community to thrive in fulfilling jobs.

The good news is that Texas’ leaders understand that many jobs today require workers with specialized certifications and skills and have developed policies to make that a priority. The bad news is that this training is only valuable until life’s curveballs derail that investment and progress completely. 

Keeping students on the path to long-term opportunity starts by ensuring talented individuals have access to the training they need to secure jobs without prohibitive financial barriers, by offering no cost tuition. But support cannot stop there.

Dwyer Workforce Development’s mission includes offering services like emergency housing assistance, childcare, transportation, case management and long-term job placement, so students can earn their certificates and ascend in their careers without everyday worries derailing their goals. 

Our two organizations — Dwyer Workforce Development, a national healthcare training non-profit, and Austin Community College District (ACC), Central Texas’ largest community college district — have begun to work with other Austin-area partners who are committed to helping students overcome obstacles, earn certificates, and launch their careers. These partners include Foundation Communities, Annunciation Maternity and Foster Angels, alongside many others who are making a difference in our region to break the cycle of poverty. 

This summer, we launched a program that will help hundreds of Central Texas students earn their clinical nursing aide (CNA) certificate, tuition-free through ACC, and are actively enrolling individuals who are underserved and underemployed.

Once those students are enrolled, Dwyer steps in to provide financial support for housing, childcare, and transportation, placement in full-time positions and long-term relationships with case managers. This support can range from the mundane, like consistent childcare, to the transformational, like scholarships to ultimately earn higher-level nursing degrees. And after graduation, Dwyer Scholars can work in skilled nursing facilities affiliated with Dwyer or those owned by many other organizations around Austin and across the state. 

The program will help create a workforce pipeline to close a 57,000-person gap in skilled nurses expected in Texas over the next decade. It will also help the state meet its goal of 60% of Texans earning post-secondary “credentials of value” to secure stable, well-paying jobs without debt. 

In Maryland, where the Dwyer program was first established, 95% of students enrolled have stuck with their training and are now working or launching their careers.

A person’s circumstances today shouldn’t define their life tomorrow. That’s why Dwyer and ACC, alongside the larger Central Texas community, are coming together to launch them on a path to opportunity that will last much longer than the inconvenience of a car that won’t start. 

Barb Clapp is CEO of Dwyer Workforce Development, a nonprofit that supports individuals who aspire to pursue a career in the healthcare industry. Gretchen Riehl is the associate vice chancellor for workforce education at Austin Community College.



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