Through a diversity of majors, programs and research projects, colleges and universities in the Coastal Bend area are leading the way toward building and developing workforce talent that is expected to have an impact on the region's economy for years to come.
At Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, for instance, faculty, scientists and students are conducting research with unmanned aerial systems that could play a key role in the Texas economy over the next 12 years or longer. In fact, UAS technology is expected to have an economic impact of more than $6 billion and create approximately 8,000 direct and indirect jobs, according to a 2013 report from the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.
"By having Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi as the lead for the state in this program, we think that will tend to draw more of the economic development toward the Corpus Christi area," says Dr. Luis Cifuentes, vice president of the Division of Research, Commercialization and Outreach.
"If we're successful, then this region will become one of the centers of focus for unmanned aircraft systems development, certainly in the state and potentially around the country."
University faculty and research scientists conducted an unmanned aircraft mission over the Gulf of Mexico in March 2013, acquiring data to seek new applications for unmanned aerial technology. Along with UAS (unmanned aircraft systems) research, Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi is working to prepare students for the workforce that will be needed to develop and operate UAS technology, Cifuentes says.
"Building our engineering program is one of our top priorities," he says. "While we're going to add traditional engineering departments such as electrical engineering, there will be an emphasis on unmanned aircraft systems.
"It's going to bring a lot of jobs."
Rebound for Natural Gas
Jobs are also foremost on the minds of officials at Texas A&M University-Kingsville, especially the preparation for those in the petroleum and natural gas industry. Spurred primarily by the discovery of the Eagle Ford Shale and its enormous oil and gas reserves, the University in Kingsville has seen the return of its natural gas engineering program.
The school has been turning out some of the world's top engineers in the oil and gas industry since the 1937 founding of the Dotterweich College of Engineering. However, a downturn in the petroleum industry in the mid-to-late 1990s caused an enrollment decline and forced the university to end its undergraduate program in natural gas engineering in 2000.
It returned for the start of the 2012-13 academic year, and "we're building a hefty program," says John Chisholm, assistant dean of the Dotterweich College of Engineering. "The interest (in offering the major again) came from a great extent out of the Eagle Ford Shale that has come in the last 10 years. That's where you're seeing all the drilling, the road traffic and the building of small communities.
"We produce good engineers all around, so we have people leaving our engineering programs and moving in to Eagle Ford and other places in the industry," Chisholm says.
Other Fields of Opportunity
Texas A&M University-Kingsville is also helping to prepare students for the workforce in another field. Its College of Business Administration is now offering an MBA to students and graduates from the Rangel College of Pharmacy, as well as others who seek to expand their career options.
Del Mar College has literally added a new dimension to its aviation maintenance technology program with the acquisition of a hangar at Corpus Christi International Airport. The facility went into use in January 2013 with 14,400 square feet of hangar space for aircraft storage and 2,440 square feet of space for classrooms and offices.
The hangar is already having an effect on students, says Joe Dudek, associate professor of aviation maintenance at Del Mar.
"They're literally in the environment they're going to be working in, and you can see a different attitude with the students," he says. "It gives a realistic outlook on the whole thing."
As it did for Texas A&M University-Kingsville, the Eagle Ford Shale has also had an impact on Coastal Bend College. Its enrollment of students taking petroleum training courses increased from fewer than 50 in 2008 to nearly 1,100 in 2012.