Workforce of the Future

Workforce of the Future

UNT Diving Eagle
April 16, 2024

UNT faculty and staff are initiating programs to ignite careers, inspire lives and invent new products.


Ahigh school graduate with disabilities who wants a good job. A teacher who can help a student going through anxiety. An engineer who is creating a groundbreaking device. The University of North Texas is making all of these careers a possibility.

Faculty and staff are leading programs to develop a more competitive Texas workforce. State and federal government agencies have contributed deep investments into these initiatives, which will match more individuals with meaningful careers while helping to solve problems in a changing global society.

For example, the UNT Workplace Inclusion and Sustainable Employment (UNT WISE) program received a $12.7 million U.S. Department of Education Rehabilitation Services Administration grant in 2022 that will help improve quality of life for more people with disabilities in Texas. “We are excited to continue creating better services and opportunity for people with disabilities,” says UNT WISE director Lucy Gafford. “The other goal is to learn what works and what helps make an impact on creating more job opportunities so that we can share that with other folks.”  

Better Resources
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Workers with disabilities often can find themselves in a tough spot. Many receive a sub-minimum wage if they work for employers with Section 14(c) certificates, a law established in 1938 that has been banned in 13 states, but not in Texas. Some students with disabilities may graduate from high school and go straight into a sub-minimum wage or day habilitation setting.

UNT already hosts multiple transition programs for students with disabilities under the College of Health and Public Service, such as the ENGAGE program, which serves students who identify as neurodivergent and want assistance with being successful in college. UNT WISE also leads the community rehabilitation provider training project, which credentials individuals who want to work as employment specialists for the state vocational rehabilitation system. Within the same mission, UNT offers ELEVAR, the second inclusive postsecondary program in the country for students with intellectual disabilities at a Hispanic-Serving Institution.

With the U.S. Department of Education grant and a collaboration with the Texas Workforce Commission, UNT WISE will craft the Texas Beacons of Excellence, a set of guidelines that creates programming or postsecondary training for individuals with disabilities so they can move into competitive employment.

By Fall 2024, UNT WISE plans to set up eight Beacons of Excellence sites — six of which will be 14(c) certificate sites and the remaining two will be school districts. UNT WISE will assess those sites and develop the plan with training and technical assistance. “We’re trying to give these sites better and different resources,” Gafford says.

UNT WISE completed the planning in its first year of the grant and is now in the four-year implementation phase. It’s found three participants so far: Amarillo ISD and two nonprofits — Goodwill Dallas and U & I Spread the Light Dallas.

As the organizations move away from 14(c) certificate jobs, UNT WISE can point out how it can train those employees with disabilities. “We want to have a roadmap to say, ‘Here’s what you can do to continue to invest in and pursue or develop competitive, integrated employment in your community,’ and we’ll have done it in different types of communities in areas across the state,” Gafford says.

Community Impact

When submissions opened in Spring 2023 for a College of Education program in which Denton County educators would be trained in mental health care practices — with tuition, fees and textbooks paid for — more than 50 applicants vied for 10 spots.

We are doing this high-quality training that is answering a demand currently happening in our communities and we’re doing it in a way that is targeting the needs of the workforce.
Peggy Ceballos

The project, funded by a $3.8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education, targets local schools with high needs — in this case, Title 1 schools in Denton and Lewisville ISDs — by teaching graduate courses to those who work in either school counseling or clinical mental health counseling.

School and clinical mental health counselors have direct access to more than 26,000 students from kindergarten through 12th grade, says Matthew Lemberger-Truelove, professor of counseling and higher education. Their services help not only students, but their families, teachers and administrators.

Counselors also are trained to understand more in-depth issues in a culturally responsive way, adds Peggy Ceballos, professor of counseling and higher education. For example, they can learn to use translation services and respond better to the immigrant populations that they’re working with. A cohort of 10 students will be selected each year for three successive years. The program takes 3.5 years to complete.

“We are doing this high-quality training that is answering a demand currently happening in our communities and we’re doing it in a way that is targeting the needs of the workforce,” Ceballos says.

With few clinical-based counseling trials performed in schools, their work also will add research on school-based counseling practices. “We need to better understand what counseling approaches specifically work best in a school setting and studying practices in these schools as part of this grant will help us in that,” Lemberger- Truelove says.

A New Kind of Energy

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) wants to create a pipeline for young people to find career pathways to the energy sector. Fusion power is an especially attractive field, with new companies and increasing investment from the government and private sector in research and development. Nuclear fusion can produce large amounts of energy that can be used to generate electricity without carbon emissions and nuclear waste.

“It is regarded as the holy grail of energy,” says Vijay K. Vasudevan, professor and chair of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. “It’s like the energy that powers the sun.”

That’s what led the DOE’s Office of Science/Fusion Energy Services RENEW program to support UNT’s Fusion Power: Research to Enhance Materials Education of Underrepresented or Disadvantaged Engineering Students (FP: REMEDiES). Led by UNT’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering, the grant offers students research training on refractory materials and manufacturing for fusion power in partnership with DOE labs while encouraging them to pursue advanced degrees.

UNT received $1.1 million of the $1.5 million grant, sharing it with three national labs — the Ames National Laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

Image of cube icon representing fusion power

The students will spend time during the summers in the national labs, where they can receive mentoring and assist with invaluable research. The project boasts support for about a dozen undergrad and graduate students every year. It also receives input from an industry advisor, Boston-based Commonwealth Fusion Systems.

Researchers are studying the metal tungsten, which is well known for its use in light bulb filaments and cathode ray tubes, electronics, ammunition and high performance cutting and machining tools.

Tungsten is a leading candidate for the first wall in fusion energy devices as well. Tungsten offers attractive properties, such as withstanding x-rays, radiation and corrosion, but it’s unclear why it behaves that way.

“Tungsten is one of the most remarkable metals,” Vasudevan says. “But we need to understand more about its behavior especially how to make it more pliable or bendable while remaining strong and resistant to extreme conditions.”

Strong Foundation

Jose Martinez (’20) is the type of student UNT wants to help excel in the workforce. He first sought research opportunities as a junior electrical engineering major. He found the perfect fit when the College of Engineering earned a $750,000 grant from a U.S. Office of Naval Research (ONR) program that promotes STEM engagement across the education pipeline. The program ran from 2019 to 2023 and impacted more than 1,100 students.

The program included several components such as summer camps and field trips to UNT’s Discovery Park, the North Texas region’s largest research park, which provided K-12 students opportunities to engage with professors and explore different labs. Undergraduate and graduate students conducted research developing new types of electronic devices, including making them with additive manufacturing approaches using nanomaterials for a wide range of sensors and radio frequency electronics.

Photo of UNT alum Jose Martinez
UNT alum Jose Martinez works at Elbit America in Fort Worth as a radio frequency engineer. (Photo: Ahna Hubnik/UNT)

UNT’s faculty went beyond the traditional lecture delivery class by creating classes under the ONR program in which students learned the principles in action in the lab. In fact, one class designed by Anupama Kaul, PACCAR professor of engineering and director of the PACCAR Technology Institute, allowed students enrolled in the course to gain experience working in the UNT Clean Room. Former UNT professor Ifana Mahbub also developed a new course on microwave engineering, which also is now a regular course in the electrical engineering department.

“Learning by doing is a great way to engage students and reinforce the theoretical concepts,” Kaul says.

Martinez, who was mentored by Mahbub, had exposure to equipment and research he wouldn’t have otherwise in her lab. Now, he works at Elbit America in Fort Worth as a radio frequency engineer and focuses on power amplifiers for the military so vehicles and aircraft can communicate with each other. He credits his experience at UNT with helping him get the job.

“I began to really grow a passion for radio frequency engineering,” he says. “In classes, you learn all the theory and formulas. Then being in the ONR program, I was able to apply those formulas directly to different experiments and see the outcome and correlate it. That really gave me a strong foundation in beginning my career.”