There are about 30,000 college students in Waco, and Patti Hueston and Jennifer Branch are doing their best to keep them here when they graduate.
Well, maybe not all of them, but they hope to convince a good percentage of those graduates that Waco is a pretty great place to live. Branch and Hueston sell the students — and other job-seekers moving to the area — on all that Waco has to offer: outdoor activities, a revitalized and bustling downtown, the proposed riverfront development, low cost of living, etc.
Hueston is the Waco employer relations specialist in the Office of External Affairs at Baylor University. Branch is the director of existing industries and workforce development at the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce. They work closely together to encourage students to stay in Waco after graduation and to encourage Waco businesses to reach out to students and offer full-time and part-time jobs as well as internships.
Branch and Hueston met with Wacoan writer Kevin Tankersley at the chamber offices to talk about the myriad ways they connect companies and job-seekers, whether those looking to make a change or those just entering the job market.
WACOAN: Why is it important to keep talent in Waco?
Hueston: It is about providing a stable workforce that’s experienced, talented and educated to be able to make our businesses competitive and also to attract those new businesses that the chamber works so hard to reach out to.
Branch: Without the supporting workforce, these companies can’t continue to grow. There is example after example of companies that want to grow and have plans to grow, but they have to have the workforce to support it. It is our main initiative to make sure they have that workforce, and that workforce comes from graduates and attracting talent from outside our community as well.
WACOAN: What kind of employees do they need?
Branch: It could be skilled laborers, or it could be professional positions. It’s any and all. As we continue to grow, the unemployment rate is at an all-time low. So it’s vital for us to not lose any talent that’s coming through or graduating from Waco, any of our colleges, but then also for us to look outside the community and [find] ways that we can attract other talent here.
WACOAN: What is the unemployment rate in Waco?
Branch: It’s 3.7%. It’s hovered around 3.4 [and] 3.5 in the last few months.
WACOAN: What would fall under ‘skilled laborers’?
Branch: So 14% of our industry base here in Waco is manufacturing. A lot of those jobs are the skilled laborers — the welders, the technicians, the plumbers, the electricians. They’re very hard to find right now.
WACOAN: It would seem that with Baylor, MCC, TSTC, Texas Tech and Tarleton, employers could find pretty much any type of employee they need here in Waco.
Branch: One thing that has continued to help Waco thrive is its diversity in its industry base. We’re not focused on just one industry. We have multiple industries that are supported by all of our schools. We have health care, we have manufacturing, we have professional services. We have all these different industry bases that are very supported by those five schools. Therefore, we’re very diverse, and it’s important that for us to continue to thrive and grow we stay diversified.
We want better quality of life for everybody here. We want higher paying jobs, we want everybody to reach their potential and to have a fulfilling career. So we feel like the more we can offer what the businesses need, the more opportunities for everybody there will be. The more talent they can find, the more opportunities there are, the more expansion projects we can announce.
Coca-Cola just announced their first [research and development] facility in the U.S. is in Waco. I don’t know if people understand how wonderful that is. This is Coca-Cola national. They have R&D facilities, but none of them are in the U.S. until now. There will be one in Waco. That’s profound, and that’s really cool. The more we can show that we have the talent to support that, the more things like that are going to happen that will, in turn, offer better, higher-paying jobs for our residents here.
Hueston: What it’s going to mean is that they need engineers. They need people who are in food and nutrition. They need people with science backgrounds. They need maintenance people to manage this wonderful new facility, and they need administrators to help operate the day-to-day operations. You’ve got a wide swath of opportunities now. It’s being able to help them see from one side to the other, what each of these distinctive things are that the universities can offer.
WACOAN: Patti, do you work more with industries outside Baylor, or do you work with students, or some of each?
Hueston: It’s a little of both but probably more so with the businesses. I spend most of my time reaching out to businesses, letting them know that there is access to the talent in the area. And as Jennifer mentioned, the diversity is what is attractive to the businesses because they can have these very talented, educated prospective employees from Baylor, from Tarleton, from Texas Tech and MCC and TSTC. Each of those universities offers a distinct advantage to the businesses, so we can help them whatever their need might be.
WACOAN: How do you go about letting graduates and soon-to-be graduates know about these employment opportunities in Waco?
Branch: Partnerships and collaboration are vital to us all being able to work with the students.
WACOAN: Partnerships between —
Branch: All of the schools, all the institutions. We also have here what we call a workforce think tank group, which involves all the schools, a lot of other workforce-related professionals within the community. We talk about, ‘OK, this is what the business industries are telling us, and this is what their needs are.’ And then we talk about upcoming events and how we can reach students, how we can get them involved.
There’s [the Heart of Texas] P-20 Council that focuses on the students from the whole life cycle, so [kindergarten] through [grade] 12 and post-[graduation].
WACOAN: And what’s the P-20 Council?
Branch: It’s basically a partnership of all the educators, but the missing piece was always the business side, so we pulled in the business side. You have all of the different [school] districts involved. All of them come together once a month and talk about how we can get not only the message to the postgrad students, but then also the K-12 students — how we can reach them. And the P-20 Council involves our colleges, our Heart of Texas Workforce partners and then all of the districts are involved in that.
Hueston: Once we establish a need with a business, then each of the colleges and universities have resources available to help reach the students. This is really a top-down commitment from each of those groups. There are career service centers at each university, and I have established some great relationships [with each of them]. Those career services people will help me get the word out if I tell them that a company has an opening and we have a job description of what that’s going to be like. I relay that over to the appropriate college or university, and they then get that out to the students.
Branch: Another thing that’s being done is for many years there’s been an information sharing initiative that’s happened here at the chamber. One of our economic development staffers sends out weekly emails that contain resumes. Those resumes go out to about 480 different executives throughout the city. Let’s say that one of our local employers is looking for a new graduate that is looking to stay in Waco. These resumes are the highest open click rate email that is sent from the chamber because they contain resumes of students.
And then there’s also a second email that goes out that’s professionals. It could be somebody moving to Waco. It could be a professional that’s looking to change their position or their career. But those resumes are sent out from the chamber to local employers. And then vice versa. If an employer has a major opening or has a strong need for a position, we send that out to all of our partners as well. There are about 10 resumes per email.
WACOAN: How could a recent college graduate or someone moving to Waco get their resume onto that email list?
Branch: So that kind of takes us into the future of what we’ve done. Because it’s been so successful and that resume-sharing option has done really well and employers really pay attention to it, it’s becoming a little bit overwhelming. Here at the chamber, we’re not exactly headhunters. We’re not recruiters. We’re not an employment service. But it’s become such a [useful] thing that we, for many years, have wanted to create a community job board where it’s focused on just Waco.
So we’ve created a talent portal; it’s wacotxjobs.com. We’re encouraging all students, all job-seekers, all people even interested in a job here in Waco to post their resume on this site because it’s only Waco. It’s new. It launched in April, but it’s quickly gaining steam. We’ve got about  resumes posted on there now and about 45 different jobs, local opportunities.
WACOAN: How do you get word out to students that if they’re looking to stay in Waco, go to wacotxjobs.com?
Hueston: Their universities are still their primary resource for their career development. This is a new piece of that. We are sharing this information with students as a second resource that they can have access to because what has been in place for years — still when Jennifer and I go out to meet with businesses, the businesses say, ‘We can’t find employees.’ And the students that we see tell us, ‘We can’t find jobs.’ So there’s still a disconnect.
Branch: We’re trying to find that bridge.
Hueston: However many different ways we can find to help students connect, there’s not just one way.
Branch: One of the initiatives that the chamber launched last year was an event called Find Your Waco, a brand-new event that I put together, and we launched it in October last year. The idea was to fill that [gap], to introduce the job-seekers, the students, the individuals looking for opportunities here with the employers and the opportunities here. But not only job opportunities, also Waco in general.
The event has four different themes to it, or four different quads. Find Your Tribe — find people that have similar interests as you. It may be churches. It may be nonprofits that you want to volunteer for. It may be the young professionals. Find your group, your people, your friends. If you’re not from here, you may not have a large network. But if you can find people that have similar interests, then you can get connected and feel more like you’re part of something.
Then there’s Find Your Space, which is as it sounds. If you’re not a permanent resident here and you’re interested in it — if you need to connect with a Realtor or you need to connect with an apartment complex or maybe a home builder or a mortgage lender, here’s these people in this group for you.
Then there’s Find Your Flavor, which is all the things that make Waco cool and unique and awesome. It may be the restaurants. It may be the nightlife. It may be the opportunities to get out on the river and do fun stuff like paddleboard or Waco Tours. That, to me, is all the flavor of Waco. Of course we have some very original flavors here. Dr Pepper, who was a major sponsor of the event, and Balcones, George’s. The things that are unique to Waco. That’s Find Your Flavor.
Then Find Your Career. It may be a job opportunity or an internship. The career is also encompassing of the schools, so it may be that you want to further your education or maybe you want to go back to school. Here’s all the schools that you can connect with.
So the target audience for this was very broad. It was locals first. It was job-seekers. It was students. And then it was also people from outside our community. We’re really targeting individuals from our local surrounding communities, specifically Fort Hood, those soldiers that are transitioning out and their families. They have a lot of skillsets that our employers ask about and need and want, so we really want to connect with Fort Hood to show them more of what Waco opportunities there are. We are listed as one of their target communities to transition out to. It’s just a lot of them don’t know how to connect with Waco. So we targeted them, and then also visitors.
Last year the event bumped up against the Ironman. We had Ironman participants who were here for the weekend that came to the event just to see what was cool about Waco, and they were blown away that we had an event like this and that there are so many cool things in Waco. The event was hugely successful last year, and it will become an annual event.
This year it will back up with the Silobration because Ironman happened to be whenever the students were on fall break, so it didn’t make sense to do the event when the students weren’t here. It’s the third weekend in October.
WACOAN: The people who are relocating to Waco, do you know where they’re coming from?
Branch: The cost of living here in Texas is very attractive, so we are seeing a lot of people from the West Coast and those higher cost of living areas.
WACOAN: Are there any indications of other reasons they’re coming to Waco, other than the cost of living?
Branch: Quality of life. I think quality of life, cost of living, those two may go hand-in-hand, but there’s a lot of good energy happening right now in Texas. It’s a good place for business. The state in general is a very positive place to have a business, and people know that.
I think that Waco has become a destination location. It’s No. 2 on Trip Advisor for [destinations on the rise in 2018], under Kapaa, Hawaii. Who would have thought?
WACOAN: And who could have imagined that Waco would have more than 2 million visitors last year?
Branch: There are no signs that show those numbers slowing down. There were a lot of positive things happening before ‘Fixer Upper’ took off and really gave us that boost, and those things are still happening. The riverfront development [and] a lot of other positive things that are happening here, and [we] don’t really know what to anticipate with the announcement of the new network here. It will be a network based out of Waco, Texas.
Hueston: It will be a great place for our journalism students and our digital media students to get some great experience.
And look at the graduates of our local schools that have gone on to do great things, and they are willing to share that experience and that expertise with the students in Waco because this is home to them. That is gratifying to see because it’s a way to give back to the community, and it’s just a matter of reaching the students.
This is a new program, so we’re still building our network of professors and others who can help guide the students to what might be here in Waco because once they get out — and it’s not just necessarily graduates, it’s in their junior year — we want to be able to reach them and let them experience what Waco is about outside of their university setting. And once they do that, the students that I’ve engaged with come back and they’re like, ‘We had no idea.’
So it’s our responsibility to help them see what Waco can offer them when they graduate because we want them to stay here. We want them to be a part of this community and do those great things here.
Branch: Another thing that is happening that connects the students with the opportunities in Waco is a new program called Campus Town Connect. Campus Town Connect is housed out of the chamber as well. It is the college version of Leadership Waco, introducing the college students that are in their junior or senior year to Waco and all that Waco has to offer.
Yesterday in Leadership Waco, we did tourism day. We went and visited all the major attractions here, a kind of behind-the-scenes look at it. These college kids are doing the same thing, and they also have education day, health care day. Those are opportunities for them to see some of those real, true, fantastic reasons why they should stay here.
Hueston: Just to define the Campus Town Connect. That is encouraging students from all of the colleges and universities to connect with each other so that they get to know each other and it’s not ‘us’ and ‘them,’ it’s ‘we.’ And that’s what Campus Town is starting, and these are the future leaders of our community. We want them to be engaged with each other.
And it’s not a competition. Each school has something unique to offer the business community, and it’s our job to help them connect and make that bridge. So it is a process that we are developing, but it’s been a great network and it’s been so very well received.
The businesses are excited about it too because they now feel like there’s more access to the schools as well as the students. Think about the tremendous resource that all of these schools and all of these students offer the businesses. When I go out and talk to them about students, either sometimes they haven’t thought about it, they didn’t know how to access it or they tried and they didn’t succeed. So they really open their minds to maybe, ‘Hey, I could have a student come in and work on a project as an internship and assess my processes for me and help decide how I could be more efficient and save money.’ If they really think about what the resources are here, then it opens up their mind and broadens the expectation that they can do some really cool projects with some very talented kids here.
Branch: So Campus Town Connect is another way that we’re reaching those students. Lexy [Bishop], who heads that up, is actually not from Waco. She was a Baylor graduate. She interned here at the chamber her senior year. Then she ended up coming back and taking a full-time position and staying in Waco because she really wanted to be here.
Hueston: But that is common and getting to be more common. When I’m out with businesses, they’ll go, ‘Oh, yeah. We have a Baylor graduate here. This was our intern, and we offered her a permanent job and she stayed.’ We are hearing that anecdotally more and more and more.
And now we’re beginning to capture it from a data standpoint too. If a student has that meaningful engagement during their junior year, they are more likely to stay in our community and even more likely to stay with that employer who gave them that opportunity during college, in the formative years of their career.
WACOAN: When you’re talking to students who are about to graduate and you’re giving them reasons to stay in Waco, what do you tell them?
Hueston: It is a combination of job opportunities and things to do. Those two things seem to be the most pressing for students. They want to feel welcomed. We help get them engaged in things like young professionals groups, taking the students that have graduated here and having them mentor, so they’ve got somebody their own age that they can relate to. It’s about feeling like they’re part of the community.
We tell them that Waco is here to embrace them. We embraced them as students, and now we want to embrace them in their young adult life as they go into this next stage. We let them know about what’s been going on and what will be going on.
They like to know what’s new. We have a group called 1000 Friends of Waco that talks about what’s new coming to Waco. They love that group and love hearing what’s coming down the pipeline before anyone else hears about it. It’s like Find Your Waco that Jennifer was talking about; it’s them finding their place in a house of worship, if that’s important to them, finding their place in the community, continuing their volunteer work.
It’s all about that opportunity, and the job has to be there too, to keep them grounded here. But then it’s all the other things. When I have the opportunity to speak before students, we try to address all of those things.
Branch: If I’m talking to a student and they say, ‘Why would I stay in Waco?’ I would immediately go to cost of living. If you compare the cost of living, a lot of them are drawn to [salaries] that may be larger for the same career in a bigger city. But whenever you compare the cost of living index, that index number, it’s not comparable. Even though their salary may be a bump higher there, their cost of living and their daily living fees are going to be much higher.
So helping them understand that yes, you could make $10,000 more if you go live in Dallas or Austin and take that job, but imagine that your rent’s going to be this much more, and your transportation and your parking and your tolls. All of that factored in, the cost of living is cheaper here.
Hueston: One factor with the job is that they are more easily recognized for their talent in a smaller pool than they would be if they are one of 10,000 employees; it’s a little harder to get noticed. Here, they typically have access to the upper management. They may even go to school, shop, work with or worship with some of these individuals, so they’re more easily recognized because we are a little bit more compact. It’s just easier to get noticed and get that recognition.
Branch: The first thing I would say to somebody interested in Waco, and I’m trying to talk them into Waco, would be the cost of living and then the quality of life. The different activities that we have here and how not every city gets to have an Ironman. Ironman came here from Austin.
That’s pretty cool to have a lake right in the middle of the city and all these bodies of water, the rivers. There’s so many outdoor activities, Cameron Park. It’s incredible all the things that you can do here, 10 minutes from your house. So for me, it’s definitely quality of life. That’s probably one of the things that has kept me here is because of all the different outdoor activities that we can access easily.
WACOAN: And it will not take you 45 minutes or an hour to drive to work.
Branch: And the other thing would be the companies. A lot of people don’t realize what we have here. They don’t realize that SpaceX, even though their address says McGregor, that’s still the Waco [metropolitan statistical area]. That’s a pretty cool place. That’s a cool thing that they’re doing out there. A lot of the companies that are here just fascinate people when we start talking about some of the major employers.
And I wanted to mention that our whole economic development team, we have a very strong initiative and focus on workforce. It’s probably one of the major initiatives at the chamber is workforce and talent. I get invited to speak a lot, and I thoroughly enjoy those opportunities. We love sharing the message of Waco. All of us do that on the [economic development team]. It’s a great opportunity for us to share the message and share the things that we encourage you to do. Get connected with the young professionals. Get connected with Campus Town Connect. Go to Find Your Waco. Post your resume on wacotxjobs.com. Do these things, and you’ll really start to see a connection and the network grow for yourself.