Newtown workforce training program wins unanimous support of City Commission

Initial group of 12 students proposed to be city residents

A graphic explains details for the Newtown job training program. Image courtesy Argus Foundation

In January 2018, Christine Robinson, executive director of the Argus Foundation in Sarasota, met with Sarasota City Commissioner Willie Shaw to talk about an issue, she told the full City Commission on April 1. “It was a short conversation about my topic,” she added, but a much longer one about a matter of great interest to Shaw.

“We’re looking to train individuals,” Shaw told his colleagues on April 1.

The goal is for residents of the Newtown community to be able to handle a multitude of jobs in the city as it continues to grow, he pointed out. Their ability to participate in that growth will enable them to remain community residents, Shaw stressed.

On April 1, thanks to that January 2018 meeting between Shaw and Robinson, the City Commission voted unanimously to ask staff to draft a budget amendment for a $34,524.50 city contribution to a pilot workforce program. The plan is for an initial 12 residents to learn how to handle heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) maintenance.

Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown noted that the city has $500,000 set aside in its Economic Development Department budget for workforce training.

That money comes out of the city’s business license tax revenue, Robinson told the commissioners, adding that the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce requested last year that funds from the licensing process be devoted to job skills programs.

City Manager Tom Barwin said staff would have the draft of the budget amendment ready for the commissioners’ vote during their April 15 meeting.

The schedule calls for the pilot program classes to start on May 15 and conclude on Aug. 12, Mireya C. Eavey, chief workforce officer for CareerEdge in Sarasota, told the commissioners. (CareerEdge works out of the offices of the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce.)

CoolToday has agreed to provide the trainer at no cost, Eavey said, and the Roy McBean Boys & Girls Club on Fruitville Road will serve as the location for the classes.

A graphic explains facets of the pilot program. Image courtesy Argus Foundation

Graduates can expect entry-level salaries ranging between $40,000 and $45,000, according to a slide Eavey showed the commissioners. Each will have the necessary certification from the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which is all they will need to find jobs, she added.

Their earning potential can rise as much as $10,000 a year, the slide noted, as they build upon their skills and gain experience.

Eavey pointed out that companies hire HVAC maintenance employees year-round.

To underscore the need for the program, Shaw told his colleagues, “There are fewer than 20 people of color working in [air conditioning-related jobs]. There’s fewer than 20 persons who are certified plumbers of color in the County Sarasota. There are fewer than 20 individuals that are of color that are electricians in the County of Sarasota. So we had an issue here that needed addressing.”

A path to a program

After her 2018 meeting with Shaw, Robinson explained, she gained the support of the Argus board for her to begin working on the idea of workforce training in North Sarasota. She then conducted individual meetings with Newtown leaders and representatives of the construction industry, Robinson continued.

A graphic notes the timeline for development of the workforce training proposal. Image courtesy Argus Foundation

What she learned, Robinson said, was that in the past, training programs in Newtown were centered around specific projects; “not designed to be sustainable and ongoing. When the projects ended, so did the training and so did the employment.”

Robinson added, “We needed to bring a sustainable program that had credibility, and really listen to the stakeholders.”

In March 2018, she said, she contacted Eavey, as CareerEdge has trained almost 5,000 workers since it was created by the Gulf Coast Community Foundation. “It is an administratively small workforce powerhouse that turns on a dime to meet the needs of our employers,” Robinson pointed out of CareerEdge.

She learned how capable Eavey and CareerEdge are, she explained, because of the success they have seen with the Precision Machining Program the Sarasota County Commission agreed to help establish several years ago at what is now the Suncoast Technical College on Beneva Road in Sarasota.

One hundred percent of the machinists who have graduated from that program have jobs or have been admitted to institutions of higher education, Robinson added.

In response to a workforce needs survey that CareerEdge launched in June 2018, Eavey told the commissioners, 200 people expressed a need and desire for the air conditioning maintenance training in the community.

Through the assistance of the Gulf Coast Builders Exchange, Eavey said, she and Robinson also gained the commitment of employers to hire graduates of the pilot program.

Christine Robinson (left) listens as Mireya Eavey explains details of the program to the City Commission. News Leader photo

Finally, Robinson pointed out that, during her research, she found that the graduates would have to have valid driver’s licenses. Yet, in her discussions with Newtown leaders, she learned that that could be an impediment for some of the people interested in the training. As a result, she said, she talked with Public Defender Larry Eger of the 12th Judicial Circuit Court, who “immediately and without hesitation” pledged his office’s assistance in working to resolve such issues for people in the program.

The biggest opportunity for success, Robinson explained, will be in cases involving driver’s licenses suspended because of unpaid tickets or court costs in the 12th Judicial Circuit Court. Eger’s staff members also will offer guidance when other jurisdictions are involved, she continued, but they cannot intervene outside their own circuit.

When Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie asked whether Robinson had talked with State Attorney Ed Brodsky of the 12thJudicial Circuit Court, Robinson replied that she had not approached Brodsky yet or representatives of Court Administration. However, she plans to do so, she stressed. “We’re trying to transform people’s lives. We’re going to need buy-in from all sectors of the criminal justice system for this.”

More details about the program 

With the City Commission’s unanimous vote of support this week, Eavey indicated that she soon would be getting the word out about the program, seeking applicants.

When CareerEdge began preparing for a similar program early this year at Manatee Technical College, she said, it issued a press release and posted information on Facebook. CareerEdge ended up with 500 applicants for 12 spots.

CareerEdge has kept contact information from those not accepted into that program, she told the commissioners, so it can identify Sarasota residents who were among the applicants and let them know about the North Sarasota program.

Although any Sarasota County resident could apply for a spot, Eavey said, preference would be given to city residents.

This sheet provides details about the expenses of the pilot program. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Additionally, CareerEdge will host an information session, she said, so applicants will know what to expect from the class. For example, they will have to be outside in the heat two days a week for hands-on training. Wednesday evening sessions will be conducted online, she noted.

Representatives of potential employers of the Sarasota graduates also have agreed to conduct mini interviews with candidates at that information session, Eavey continued, in an effort to narrow the pool to those most likely to achieve success with the program.

When Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch asked whether CareerEdge would stay in touch with graduates, to learn from them what aspects of the program they had found most and least useful, Eavey replied that that is a step CareerEdge routinely takes. She also consults with their employers, Eavey said, as those persons can provide important information about the graduates’ capabilities. That helps CareerEdge fine-tune programs, Eavey added.

In response to questions about the expenses for the program, Eavey explained that each student will receive tools valued at about $900, which will be essential to them in their future employment.

The Argus Foundation board committed $5,000 to the pilot program, Robinson said. Some of that money could be used for unexpected costs that might arise, she noted.

Commissioner Freeland Eddie told Robinson and Eavey, “I want to see a multi-year commitment” for the program. Although she understood the need to evaluate the initial session, she said, the solitary initiative would not enable the commission to get “a true sense of costs.”

“The issue I’m having is I don’t want to commit us into multiple years of this program only,” Commissioner Shaw responded, reiterating his earlier points about the need for training in North Sarasota for other trades. “I don’t want to just stop it here.”

“I think it’s got a great chance of success,” Commissioner Hagen Brody said of the proposal.

“Let’s get going with this class,” Mayor Liz Alpert added, “and see how it goes. There’s a tremendous amount of work that went into getting to this class.”