New workforce readiness initiative to move ahead

Survey just completed points to manufacturing skills gap

Sarasota County Commissioner Joe Barbetta urged fast response to a new two-county survey about workforce readiness. Photo by Norman Schimmel

In an effort to improve workforce readiness in Sarasota and Manatee counties, the Sarasota County Commission voted unanimously on Wednesday, Aug. 29, to ask County Administrator Randall Reid to meet with the appropriate representatives of the Sarasota County School Board, the Bradenton-based organization CareerEdge and county economic development staff, among others, to bring back to the board a plan of action within 90 days.

Commissioner Joe Barbetta objected to the timeframe, saying he felt it was too long, but Reid indicated he might be able to report to the board within 60 days.

The vote came at the end of an hour-long discussion that included four of the five members of the Sarasota County School board in a joint meeting.

School board members did question whether area manufacturers are aware of programs already in effect in the district that have been designed to improve students’ preparation to find jobs.

During the meeting, Stephanie Kempton, a professional researcher with her own firm, Kempton Research and Planning, presented findings from a survey of manufacturers in the two-county area. Among the results, Kempton said, was a response from 100 people indicating that 41% of the jobs that had gone unfilled for three or more months were classified as “skilled production” — positions for production machinists, operators, craft workers, distributors and technicians.

In second place, at 17%, were positions in engineering technology — industrial and manufacturing engineers and planners, the survey showed.

Additionally, a pool of 105 responses indicated that 75% of the companies surveyed have between 1 and 10 positions open.

Fifty-six of 103 respondents said they needed to hire skilled production workers, “which is a huge percentage,” Kempton pointed out.

The survey was completed from late May through late July, Kempton said.

Miryea C. Eavey, executive director of CareerEdge, told the board she had commissioned the survey after discussions with Todd Bowden, director of the Sarasota County Technical Institute, who said he needed data about what careers were available and what employee skills manufacturers were seeking before addressing any changes in the SCTI curriculum.

Eavey added that she had shown the survey results last week to representatives from seven small, medium and large employers in Sarasota and Manatee counties. She had promised then, she said, that “we would do something” about workforce preparedness. However, she added, the manufacturers needed to come together “and describe better or identify those core skills that we need to start teaching” before any new programs are planned for the public schools.

Survey details

In preparing for the survey, Kempton told the two boards, “We wanted to really understand … what was happening in the manufacturing community.”

The goal was to quantify the skills gap, she said.

The survey showed that 71% of 103 respondents said a skills gap exists, Kempton said, and 69% said the gap had been evident for three or more years.

Asked why they thought the gap existed, Kempton said 77% agreed that local students were not choosing manufacturing jobs for their careers.

Out of 84 respondents, the survey showed, 75% strongly agreed or agreed with the statement, “High technology or production skilled workers are not available.”

Another 70% strongly agreed or agreed that “Basic skills are not being acquired by workers in local schools.”

However, Kempton said, when asked what the community should do to rectify the problem, “A lot of them just didn’t know.” The proportion offering that response was 46%, she said.

In vetting the data, she added, it was determined that “machining is the top need” for manufacturers in the two counties. One of their strong recommendations, she added, was for apprenticeships and internships to help prepare young people for those jobs.

Eavey pointed out that these types of jobs would pay about $80,000 to $100,000 per year.

Programs in place

Schools Superintendent Lori White told the group, “There’s been a tremendous emphasis on career and technical education in the school district for a number of years.”

For the past several years, she said, students had been able to earn a high school credential from Florida Ready to Work that was noted on their diplomas, showing they had basic skills that related well to work. In the Class of 2012, she added, 510 students had earned that credential.

Additionally, White said she agreed with an earlier statement Eavey had made, that more emphasis needed to be placed in middle schools on the potential for careers in manufacturing. That was why, she pointed out, that every middle school in the district had a program titled, “Production and Manufacturing Technology, “ which introduced students to the technical literacy required for manufacturing. Those programs had 380 students enrolled this year, she added.

Further, each of the district’s five high schools has an engineering program, White pointed out. Additionally, White said, students at Booker, Riverview and North Port high schools have the option of entering a fairly new program that enables them to obtain a special certification from the Manufacturing Skills Standards Council.

“I think the challenge will be finding the [program] niche that is broad enough,” White said, to enable students to learn the skills they will need to get manufacturing jobs. She cautioned that any new, significant initiative in the district would cost about $1 million.

School Board Chairwoman Caroline Zucker also reminded those present that state and community focus “is all about going to college.”

School board member Frank Kovach voiced frustration that discussions about skills gaps seem to come in cycles. “How do we spend so much money and have so many people involved … and we can’t solve the problem?”

Kempton responded that 60% of the manufacturers surveyed admitted they were not aware of what measures the schools had in place to produce a solution. “They probably don’t know what Mrs. White said today,” Kempton added.

“I think one of the things we need is to have more communication from the manufacturers,” school board member Shirley Brown said. “[Let them] tell us what kind of program to develop that will have 25, 50, 100 jobs a year, year after year after year.”

Unless the district could be guaranteed specific types of jobs would be available in the future, Brown said, it did not make economic sense to invest in new programs.

“I totally agree,” Eavey said. “We told [the manufacturers] right from the beginning they have to be part of the solution.”

What to do

Commission Vice Chairwoman Carolyn Mason said she understood school board members’ frustrations. Perhaps the best approach, she said, would be to develop an alliance of manufacturers, educators and nonprofit partners to address the current situation.

Commissioner Jon Thaxton suggested the boards pursue a pilot program that included research on successful workforce readiness models in other communities. Reid agreed with that strategy and said he would work with White as well.

Commission Chairwoman Christine Robinson and Commissioner Nora Patterson also suggested the academic institutions in the two-county area, including the State College of Florida, be included in the discussions.

White recommended Bowden and Melissa Morrow, the district’s career and technical education director, work with Reid.

Barbetta suggested the initial group that met be a small one, which would be more productive, he said.

“Unless we take that leap to move this thing forward,” Robinson said, “we’re going to converse ourselves to death.”

She passed the gavel to Mason so she could make the motion to give Reid formal direction on the process.