HARLINGEN — It opened when the campus did, but now it’s fading into history.
The agriculture technology program at Texas State Technical College will soon graduate its last cohort after serving students for more than 50 years.
While those still in the program will be able to finish the two-year degree, the institution will no longer accept new students, said Cledia Hernandez, provost for TSTC.
“We track our students,” she said. “In this case with the ag program, only 50 percent of our students were actually found in the workforce upon them completing our program. After five years of being out in industry, wages were only up to about $28,000 a year.”
This is in stark contrast to the new electrical line worker program TSTC plans to open. That starting wage is $77,000, and after five years workers can be earning $130,000 a year.
TSTC is offering these and other courses because graduates earn higher wages. The school is funded based on how much its graduates earn in the industry.
The cut comes after a close evaluation of all programs at TSTC.
“We actually evaluate all of our programs on an annual basis to make sure that we are maintaining relevance with industry growth,” Hernandez said. “We do this to make sure that we’re offering the right programs to prepare the workforce for the industry that’s coming into the region.”
Students and teachers disagreed with the decision.
“I’d like to know where they get their numbers from,” said Sammy Gavito, head of the ag program.
Hernandez said TSTC gets wage data from the Texas Workforce Commission. However, Gavito feels more should be considered than numbers.
“I’d like to see where they’re at in the industry after five years and still only making $28,000,” Gavito said.
He referred to some students who go to work with state agencies such as the Texas Animal Health Commission, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service or the USDA in Weslaco.
“We have examples of students that start off at $24,000 as a GS3, which means in five years they’ll be a GS5 working for a GS7,” he said. “I think what’s being forgotten also is the benefits that are kind of hidden within those agency jobs. When you add the cost of health insurance and other benefits they might have such as retirement, and they get their own USDA truck, those are all costs that I think should be added to that salary.”
Students finishing the program aren’t happy either.
“It’s saddening and a bit frustrating at the same time just because there’s no other institution around here that teaches what they’re teaching,” said Nery Uriegas, 24, who will graduate in Spring 2020.
“There are people that end up going to Kingsville and they don’t get into hands-on training that we get here,” she said. “It’s sad to see such a good program that I can say is a great program to just go away.”
Many of the students who graduate from TSTC’s ag program continue their education at Texas A&M University – Kingsville. Of the eight students graduating from the ag program this semester, six are planning to continue at Texas A&M as juniors, Gavito said.
Former TSTC ag students now at Texas A&M already have high hopes of good jobs.
“We have students who have already been told that coming out of there they’ve already been hired,” Gavito said. “One was to the meat packing industry, and they were going to start him off at $58,000. We have another student that H-E-B has already said they would hire as their meat manager. We have other students that are working toward their agriculture teaching certificates.”
Hernandez said TSTC wants to ensure the area has a sufficient amount of highly-skilled workers that will attract those jobs. TSTC helps cities and economic development corporations to make sure they’re attracting the right businesses to the area.
“In assessing wages we want to make sure that they are way above living wage and not below that,” she said. “Unfortunately, some of our programs probably are not performing in that way.”
Many students here can’t afford to go off to a four-year university, Gavito said. The TSTC program has provided a way to complete their initial coursework before finishing at another university. Others simply want to go quickly into the workforce with what they can learn at TSTC.
Jacob Herron, who will also graduate in spring 2020, wants to work for the USDA or the Texas Animal Health Commission.
“I’ve enjoyed the program a lot because a lot of this stuff is hands on,” said Jacob, 22. “They teach you a lot of stuff you wouldn’t learn on your own.”
Uriegas hasn’t decided whether to go to Kingsville or seek a job at the USDA, or AgriLife in Weslaco, or with U.S. Customs.
Ag program evolves
1967 — Farm Equipment Mechanics program (Campus opens with 40 students and four programs including what is now known as Agricultural Technology)
The program has evolved and the name has changed over the years:
1972 — Livestock and Ranch Operations
1979 — Farm Machinery and Mechanics
1997 — Agricultural Technology
TSTC plans to bring the Electrical Lineworker Technology program to the Harlingen campus. It’s currently taught on the TSTC campuses in Fort Bend County, Marshall and Waco.
In addition, TSTC will be investing in and expanding its Cyber Security program, its welding technology program and mechatronics technology.