Thursday, October 29, 2009

If You Build It, They Will Come

Over the past 20-plus years I have had the good fortune of being involved with TEEX in many different capacities–everything from student worker to staff member, from customer to now Advisory Council member. I was on the TEEX team that delivered one of the first international classes when we taught Rescue in South America. I was lucky enough to be involved in delivering the first TEEX class aboard the USS Lexington. And I’ve seen the Texas Fire Training School grow from being “that place outside town with all of the smoke” to becoming the largest emergency response training center in the world. Needless to say, I have seen the agency grow and develop in ways that no one ever could have anticipated.In late 2007, I was approached to participate in the TEEX Advisory Council (TAC) being formed by TEEX’s Director, Gary Sera. The list of council members was quite impressive, including city and state officials, university faculty, a hospital administrator, a former U.S. Attorney, and many other important folks from industry and the public sector. I was proud to participate, even though I couldn’t imagine what I could bring to such a group.

Within just a month or two of joining TAC, I was approached by a colleague and invited to participate on a curriculum advisory committee for a graduate safety degree program being offered through the Health Science Center’s School of Rural Public Health. Again, this was a tremendous opportunity to network with an amazing group of students, faculty and peers.

Over the following months, I was really impressed to learn more of what both TEEX and the Health Science Center had to offer–particularly as it related to health, safety and emergency response. In fact, as I looked around and began accounting for the other entities within the A&M System involved in safety like the Mary Kay O’Connor Process Safety Center, the Texas Transportation Institute, and Texas AgriLife Research and Extension, it became clear to me that no other institution in the world has the resources that the Texas A&M University System has in this area. Unfortunately, it also became apparent that as great as each group was in their own area of influence, nowhere were they being “collectively marketed.” No mechanism was in place to collaborate and leverage the overall strength of these individual assets.
We kicked ideas around in both the TAC and the curriculum committee. With support from Gary Sera and a driving effort on the part of Jenny Ligon, TEEX’s Manager of External Relations, it didn’t take long before the potential was exposed. After a few initial meetings to clear political hurdles, representatives from each of the agencies, schools, and departments gathered to discuss the formation of a collaborative vehicle to serve as a portal for both internal and external access to the endless list of safety resources. Ideas poured out on how each could work together in conducting research, educating young minds and training the workforce of tomorrow. Excitement grew and thoughts matured.
In January 2010, less than one year from the initial brainstorming meeting, a proposal will go before the Board of Regents to formally approve the Safety Collaborative within The Texas A&M University System. It is not clear just how big this idea might be, but the opportunity is too great to pass up. Just like the guy in the movie who cut down his corn field to make a baseball diamond, if we remain committed to developing this safety collaborative, great things will happen. Who knows, we might even win a national championship in baseball or football along the way. I know, completely unrelated, but as long as we’re dreaming…

TEEX Advisory Council member Randy Patton ’90 is the Director of Emergency Preparedness and Response and former Corporate Safety Director for Valero Energy Corporation.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

My Take on the TAC

Established in February 2008, the TEEX Advisory Council (TAC) is a fantastic group of folks who have truly become trusted advisors of the agency. Currently, the TAC consists of 16 members who were selected for the experience and knowledge they each bring from their respective fields in industry and government. These fields range from public health and safety, to energy and transportation, to economic development and technology. These members respect TEEX’s mission, goals and objectives, and they complement the agency’s activities by offering insight and information on the diverse constituencies we jointly serve.

The TAC’s mission is to serve as an advisory body to TEEX regarding strategic direction in meeting the needs of the public and private sectors, and in staying in the forefront of emerging technologies and potential product and service areas. They provide guidance on initiatives, strategies, and business development opportunities for TEEX. TAC members are also crucial in identifying community resources that might assist with a particular project, facilitating the development of strategic partnerships, and advising on legislative issues and dynamics.

A few initiatives that have originated from or benefited from the involvement of TAC members:

  1. Inspiration and advancement of the creation of a Texas A&M University System-wide collaborative focused on all-things safety;

  2. Recommendations and support in pursuing grant opportunities, both state and federal;

  3. Ideas and advice for innovative communication and marketing avenues; and

  4. Numerous leads for business opportunities.
Through only four offsite meetings, about the same number of teleconferences, and sporadic trips to visit the TAC members on their turf, I’ve really enjoyed seeing the bond forming between this diverse, yet enterprising, crew of women and men. Not only have they proven to be tremendous advocates for and counselors to TEEX, but they’ve also forged alliances and partnerships among themselves. The diversity of each of our backgrounds has allowed us to have insightful, and colorful, discussions about business and life. And almost two years later, I can sincerely say that we’ve formed some lifelong friendships within this group.

Our esteemed TEEX Advisory Council Members are:

  • Karen Baird, Trinity Industries

  • Chris Barron, Texas Firemen’s and Fire Marshals’ Association

  • Steve Bass, Grapevine Fire Department

  • Clif Cameron, Deep South Insurance

  • Linda Glessner, University of Texas
  • Steve Griffith, City of Sugar Land
  • Dan Holt, Blinn College

  • Tom Jackson, College Station Medical Center

  • David Lakey, Texas Department of Health Services

  • Steve McCraw, Texas Department of Public Safety

  • Elena Messina, National Institute of Standards & Technology

  • Robin Passmore, BP (Retired)

  • Randy Patton, Valero Energy Corporation

  • Jose Quintana, AdventGX Corporation

  • John Ratcliffe, Ashcroft Law Firm

  • J.D. Salinas, Hidalgo County Judge

  • Ed Serna, Texas Department of Transportation

  • Mike Thompson, BP America
What’s next for the TAC, you ask? We’re planning an offsite meeting in Ingleside for February 2010, which will include tours of Naval Station Ingleside and a Valero refinery. We’ll have much to discuss regarding TEEX’s interim legislative strategy, as well as the agency strategy, and some other initiatives that are currently in the works.

Jenny Ligon is the Manager of External Relations for the Texas Engineering Extension Service.

Thursday, October 15, 2009


Duck and cover! That is what we practiced in grade school in Los Angeles in case of a nuclear attack. I remember it well. When the bomb hit, we were to get under our desks, cover our heads and wait for…what we were waiting for? Fortunately, it never happened, but many fellow 'boomers' and I grew up in that kind of environment.

A short while after that, we had nuclear power plants popping up like mushrooms. There was one about 50 miles from where I grew up. From our perspective, there was no good reason for this. It seemed like we were just messing with nature. If nuclear power was safe, why were we putting a gigantic concrete dome around it? Then, two events occurred almost simultaneously–the movie, “The China Syndrome,” and the close call at the Three Mile Island nuclear facility. The outcry was immediate: forget about it, nuclear power is power from the devil. Shut them all down. And most of the nuclear power plants in the United States were shut down.

Why am I telling you all this? Because I am still a strong advocate of nuclear power as a major source of energy in the United States even after all of this. Unfortunately, the fear of nuclear power lingers. This is hard to overcome, and the only solution is education and awareness. These fears come from three concerns: safety, nuclear waste and concern about nuclear weapons.

Today's modern nuclear power plants are very safe. We have learned from our previous mistakes and have much better technology. However, we’ve done a very poor job of alleviating the fears of our citizens. What about all that nuclear waste? Arguably, radioactive waste is no more or no less dangerous than the waste from other means of producing energy, such as fossil fuels. In fact, radioactive waste will eventually become harmless while the waste produced from the burning of coal is dangerous forever. Finally, with respect to nuclear weapons, most of the developed world has embraced nuclear technology to generate electricity. So the nuclear technology is out there already that would enable the weapons to be produced if they have the right components. The United States turning to nuclear power plants will not further any nuclear weapons agenda for any country. Plus, the way I see it, any reduction in the dependency of oil in the Middle East is bound to keep tensions down and ensure global stability.

What about the benefits? Simple. Nuclear power is very clean and very cheap. You can build it where it is needed. You can create a well-trained workforce (not Homer Simpson) with careers that pay well. TEEX is currently working with Texas A&M's Nuclear Power Institute to create the workforce development programs that will serve the nuclear industry. Nuclear power is not perfect and has its associated risks. But when you weigh it against other energy sources, it fares very well.
Gary Sera is director of the Texas Engineering Extension Service and former chairman of the Executive Council of the Texas Manufacturing Assistance Center.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Jump Start Jacksboro!

Several months ago, I participated in a conference call with a handful of community leaders from a small Texas town called Jacksboro. During the call, the president of the Economic Development Board and his colleagues asked a lot of great questions. How can they help their community diversify its economic base? What’s the best way to approach redevelopment of their downtown? Can they take advantage of their local state park? As a 4B community, what rules do they need to be familiar with?

Jacksboro’s Economic Development Board had already demonstrated significant economic development savvy, especially when you consider the town has a population of about 4,700 people, and roughly 1,000 of those souls actually live in the prison that employs 200 or so of Jacksboro’s citizens. This is a small town. They told me they were new to economic development and needed help to get up to speed and then to get serious about moving their town forward.

I love working with rural communities. The people are genuine, passionate and straightforward. They expect a good value, and if you say you’re going to do something, you’d better be prepared to do it. They are my kind of people. But economic development is a long-term game, wherever you play it. In rural places, it is likely to take even longer– to engage key players and develop your overall strategy, dig into necessary sub-plans, identify funding, grow entrepreneurs and, eventually, start to see the physical signs of progress. I’d say the folks in Jacksboro were working on economic development for a good 10-15 years before they ever established their board, and well before that, they were thinking like economic developers. They just weren’t calling it that.

Jacksboro was building up their public works infrastructure. When a big business came to call but walked away at the first sight of aging schools, Jacksboro set out to build all new Jacksboro schools. Their Twin Lakes and ballpark are beautiful and overflowing with families enjoying the cool breeze and tree-covered rolling hillsides. Lost Creek Reservoir State Trailway is a 10-mile hike, bike and equestrian trail that goes from Fort Richardson State Park all the way to Twin Lakes and is peppered with interpretive displays that shed light on the rich history of this town that is just over an hour outside of Dallas/Fort Worth.

Jacksboro’s been busy laying the groundwork for economic development. They just wanted to be better informed about the strategies, resources and opportunities available to them as a rural Texas town seeking to better itself. After some brainstorming, we decided that rather than limiting ourselves to our typical TEEX Community Economic Development Strategy process, we’d also develop a training course. We’d been thinking about creating a course entitled Economic Development for Local Leaders, and Jacksboro agreed to be our guinea pig. We also decided that we needed to help Jacksboro tell their story to the people in Austin who might be able to help Jacksboro execute their newly minted plan. So, we committed to introduce them to our friends at the Governor’s Office of Economic Development and Tourism, Texas Department of Agriculture, Texas Historical Commission, their local workforce board, and others.

The inaugural delivery of the Economic Development for Local Leaders course in Jacksboro was well-received. The members of the Economic Development Board participated in all the modules and came away with lots of ideas. It was great that Lynda Pack, their new (and first-ever) Economic Development Director, was able to join us for the course. And the following day, some 25 citizens came together for a vision and strategy session. What a day! You’ll never learn as much about the spirit of a place as you will when you get people together to share their dreams and talk about the home they love. You uncover secrets that I like to call points of pride – it’s these unique qualities and assets that make the locals stand a little taller. In Jacksboro, one example is Kathy Warnell’s gourmet catering. She catered our meals for both the training and the planning workshop. There was a beautiful display of fresh foods prepared with incredible attention to detail, which we consumed with absolutely no regard for gluttony…we just couldn’t help ourselves. Another point of pride is the town’s incredible generosity. They get behind a cause with their personal pocketbooks. Plus, their work ethic and entrepreneurial spirit is vibrant. All of these and many other assets were uncovered that day and will serve the community well as it moves forward.

Jacksboro’s local leaders now have a deeper understanding of the elements of a sound economic development program. We’ve finalized and celebrated the adoption of the first Jacksboro economic development strategy. Their presentation is coming together, and we’ll all be meeting in Austin later this month to tell their story and seek support for specific projects. Jacksboro Economic Development is up and running. And that’s going to be great for Jacksboro. I’m honored to have worked with them to create their plan. Even more, I’m grateful that they’ve helped TEEX to create a new suite of tools called Rural Jump Start that will enable other rural communities to “jump start” their economies with their own plan, built on unique assets and personal dreams, and the will and resources to execute it.

Joan Quintana is the economic development and market intelligence program director for TEEX's Technology and Economic Development Division (TED). She welcomes your comments.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Director's Take: How many Webmasters can there be in this world?

Over the past 20 years, manufacturing has gotten a bad rap in the United States, and Information Technology (IT) is to blame. It’s not that I have an issue with IT. It has improved efficiency, enhanced our quality of life, and provided access to information. But we have slowly but surely lost much of our ability to produce manufactured products by encouraging our kids to enhance their education primarily through the development of IT skills. The fact is that the value added to the economy from the production and sale of a ‘widget’ is much greater than any service sector or IT-related product.

What happens when you go into a market and purchase an electronic product, an appliance, or anything durable? As soon as you buy it, our IT system immediately triggers a ‘make order’ to the manufacturer to replenish this stock. If the manufacturer is in the United States, that’s great. If the manufacturer is in the town where the product was purchased, that’s even better, because this causes the supply chain to jump into action. But what if the manufacturer is located overseas? What is the local benefit? Well, you have the jobs in the retail store, most of which are at or near minimum wage. And, you have the sales tax that is generated for the local government. That is why most communities love retail development. They get lots and lots of sales tax revenue. Usually, this tax revenue is used to enhance the community environment or recruit more retail. This is beneficial, but pales when compared to what the benefits would be if that widget was made in that community.

Okay, so what about the perception that manufacturing is a dirty, stinky, polluting environment with low wages and a sweat shop atmosphere? This is incorrect. Most manufacturing sites are very clean and non-polluting. Smokestacks are rare. Wages for manufacturing workers are significantly higher than the service sector, including retail. What’s more, service-sector jobs are not always less stressful or in an appreciably better setting than manufacturing jobs. I once toured a call center and was taken back by the low wages, turnover, and pressure of these jobs.

Not everyone can become an engineer or a computer scientist. How many ‘webmasters’ can there be in this world? Our ability to ‘make something’ that you can touch and feel is diminishing. It is rare to find a teenager or young adult who knows how to use tools or to calibrate machinery. The fact is this is where the jobs will be in the near future. The need for technician-level training is going to become critical very soon. These are jobs that will pay high wages. I recently heard that the Nuclear Industry is paying very large bonuses for nuclear technicians to relocate and work in their facilities. As we transition into alternative energies, it will be the hands-on technician who will be keeping the grid operating.

I also hear all the time that we can’t compete with oversees manufacturing shops when it comes to the cost of production. This is not true. A recent study conducted by the Supply Chain Systems Laboratory at Texas A&M concluded that it was less expensive to manufacture a ‘widget’ in McAllen, Texas, than it was in Reynosa, Mexico. This is because of all the ‘hidden costs,’ such as oversight, currency risk, and shipping. I will bet that this research would come to the same conclusion if we included China, Japan, and Korea in this study. This is very good news for the state of Texas, as we have a wealth of young, motivated labor candidates who only need training and education to become the best workforce in the world.

So, when thinking about your career or your child’s career, keep in mind that not everyone can get a college degree, and that there are, and will be, high-paying jobs for that young person who is inclined to be ‘hands-on’ and loves to tinker.

Gary Sera is director of the Texas Engineering Extension Service and former chairman of the Executive Council of the Texas Manufacturing Assistance Center.