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What DC Can Learn from San Antonio

Amid debate in Washington, D.C. about American competitiveness, BPC has been crossing the country to understand local and regional competitiveness efforts. Previously, we held roundtables in Tampa and Pittsburgh. The most recent roundtable, hosted by the University of Texas at San Antonio, offered several key insights on three areas in particular: water, workforce, and woes at the border.

Fast Facts: San Antonio

Large and growing: San Antonio is one of the 10 largest cities in the country and keeps getting bigger. Since 2020, San Antonio has enjoyed some of the largest increases in population of any American city.

Diverse and inclusive: According to the Brookings Institution’s latest Metro Monitor, San Antonio takes the top spot among 56 “very large” metro areas in “geographic inclusion” and ranks 11th in racial inclusion.

Economically dynamic: San Antonio is a top 20 metro area in terms of economic growth, according to Brookings. The Milken Institute’s Best Performing Cities index charts healthy rates of job and wage growth in San Antonio. On the Economic Innovation Group’s Distressed Communities Index, San Antonio is rated as “comfortable.”

From Strengths to Challenges to Opportunities

Those assets and positive trends were highlighted by roundtable participants: “We have a dynamic population of people who come into San Antonio and decide to stay.” Nevertheless, roundtable participants were clear-eyed about the need to address “weak spots” and the potential for even greater growth: “Our competitiveness is extraordinary if you take a long-term view.”

They approached the discussion of competitiveness from the perspective of building on existing strengths and leveraging the city’s growth to address persistent challenges. The federal government, when it talks about competitiveness, may have in mind China and artificial intelligence. Those issues aren’t lost on public and private leaders in San Antonio. But they recognize that social and economic dynamism requires a much more granular strategy.

Infrastructure Basics

A city or region can’t hope to remain competitive very long if it doesn’t provide fundamentals such as reliable electricity and safe water. Those are the “foundations of competitiveness.” Despite evident challenges in Texas and other parts of the southwestern United States, attendees felt that San Antonio had addressed them in a serious and long-term way. Environmentalism regarding the water supply, in terms of conservation and planning, “is part of our economic competitiveness” and “how we pitch the city.”

Transportation infrastructure, too, is a foundational element of regional competitiveness. Airport modernization is on the local agenda and roundtable participants emphasized the economic importance of Interstate 35, which runs from Duluth, MN, to the U.S.-Mexico border and is a vital trade artery. The federal government signaled its commitment to upgrading American infrastructure with bipartisan passage in 2021 of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

Workforce Matters

Just as fundamental to regional competitiveness is the local workforce. Roundtable participants highlighted three dimensions of workforce: upskilling, recruitment, and pipeline.

Several attendees focused on credentialing and raising the skill level of the region’s existing workers. Employers and local leaders are wrestling with questions like, “how do you upskill individuals,” and “how do you credential them to the next level”? In 2020, the city’s voters approved a sales tax to allocate over $200 million to Ready to Work, what one person called one of the largest single investments in job training in U.S. history. Training is not the only workforce barrier, they cautioned: child care is a major issue for many workers, especially women. Small businesses, in particular, face difficulty in helping employees with child care. Business owners are “taking a life risk” by starting a company, one person said. They need “pragmatic assistance” with things like child care to support their success.

Other participants focused on recruitment: some fast-growing local industries need skilled workers today and find it necessary to attract workers from elsewhere rather than wait for training programs. More broadly, other attendees pointed to the entire education and training pipeline, including the K-12 system, as needing innovation and reinvention.

All agreed, however, with the sentiments of two participants:

  1. “The workforce system is broken.”
  2. “We as a country invest a lot of money reactively in workforce development.”

The efforts and views of local leaders will be vital to informing near-term workforce opportunities in Congress. Several apprenticeship bills are being developed and, in the next year or two, lawmakers must grapple with reauthorizations of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act and Perkins Career and Technical Education Act.

Gateway and Bottleneck

San Antonio is not on the U.S.-Mexico border, but it is the vertex of the South Texas Triangle closest to it. As such, it is the American “gateway to Central and South America” and that is “a big part of our competitiveness.” Anything that deals with the border, however, quickly gets wrapped up in the divisive politics of immigration. Failure to find a fix to border issues has made it a bottleneck that is “plugging up” the full potential of the Triangle—and, by extension, the country.

This wasn’t a plea for a particular solution or approach but a framing point: realizing the social and economic promise of an already dynamic region, one that drives national growth, is hampered by the border “chokepoint.”

Federal Role

The federal government is obviously a large source of money for most U.S. cities. In San Antonio, which trademarked the moniker, “Military City USA,” the strong presence of the armed services is one source of that money. And any immigration policy breakthrough will need to come from Washington. What else do cities and regions need from federal policymakers?

Flexibility: Roundtable participants discussed the difficulties of navigating complex federal grant systems and seek greater flexibility in use of funds. Complexity and interagency breakdowns at the federal level also create costs at the local level. Greater federal coordination, and more streamlining, would help.

Frontier investment: San Antonio is home not only to cutting-edge military activities but also world-class biomedical research. Federal funding plays a significant role in that research. Debt and deficit concerns in Washington could threaten further research funding. Other participants discussed the need to ensure that the spillover effects of ideas generated through federal funding are captured locally.

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