Precision Machining Program’s success drawing attention from across the country, county commissioners learn

Tours of manufacturing facilities have sparked increased interest in skilled trade jobs, industry representative says

Jennifer Behrens Schmidt. News Leader photo
Jennifer Behrens Schmidt. News Leader photo

Companies from all across the United States are contacting CareerEdge Funders Collaborative to learn how a public-private partnership to create a Precision Machining Program in Sarasota County has proven so successful, Mireya Eavey, executive director of the organization, has told the Sarasota County Commission.

The program was implemented at what is now Suncoast Technical College (STC) in Sarasota within less than a year after a study commissioned by CareerEdge showed that in 2012, 75 percent of 105 respondents surveyed said their companies had between one and 10 skilled production positions open in Sarasota and Manatee counties; 100 people surveyed said 41 percent of such jobs had gone unfilled for three or more months.

Many skills gaps studies are undertaken, Eavey pointed out during a March 23 presentation to the County Commission, but most of them end up on a shelf. Not only did Sarasota County and its partners act on the results of the CareerEdge survey, she added, but “we did it in record time.” She credited the “community-wide” approach, with collaboration among the county, the Sarasota County School District and area manufacturers. The County Commission approved a $330,000 contribution to pay for the Precision Machining Program’s equipment.

Moreover, the school district is planning the same type of program at the North Port STC, which is scheduled to open in August 2017, and an Industrial Maintenance Program is in development at the Beneva Road STC campus in Sarasota, a March 23 memo to the County Commission noted. Further, the State College of Florida has developed two engineering technology programs, Eavey’s PowerPoint presentation said.

Jennifer Behrens Schmidt, immediate past president of the Sarasota-Manatee Manufacturers Association — which she said represents 600 firms in the region — also told the board about how student attitudes toward manufacturing jobs have been shown to change after they tour workplaces. In October 2015, as part of National Manufacturing Day activities, she added, “We hosted buses and buses and buses of students” from middle and high schools. In a survey they were asked to fill out on the way to their destinations, Schmidt said, many students provided negative answers to a question about whether they would consider careers in manufacturing. “And then they get into these facilities and their eyes open,” she explained.

They learn “how clean these environments are and how high-tech they are,” she continued, as well as the job opportunities available and the earning potential.

Mireya Eavey talks with Todd Bowden, during the 2014 Convocation of Governments at the college. File photo
Mireya Eavey talks with Todd Bowden, executive director of career, technical and adult education in the school district, during the 2014 Convocation of Governments, held at Suncoast Technical College in Sarasota. File photo


On the bus trips back to their schools, she pointed out, the students were asked to fill out “virtually the same identical survey.” In the vast majority of cases, she said, a student’s answer “changes dramatically.”

“We’re going to continue to do that this year at an increased pace,” she added of the tours.

In response to a question from Commissioner Christine Robinson, Schmidt noted, “Students that are currently in the program are being fought over because there is such a high demand.”

Past, present and future

When she opened her own company — Atlantic Mold & Machining in Venice — “workforce availability was a problem and one of the biggest hindrances to growth,” Schmidt told the board. In each of the past two years, she continued, she has hired a graduate of STC’s Precision Machining Program as an apprentice, “and they are doing a fabulous job.”

A graphic shows statistics regarding the Precision Machining Program. Image courtesy Sarasota County
A graphic shows statistics regarding the Precision Machining Program. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Their wage scale has increased approximately every five months, Schmidt pointed out, rising $1 per hour. The apprentices are on track to make about $46,000 this year, she said. Yet, tuition for the STC program is about $4,000, she noted, and it takes just one year to complete it.

The program is in its third year, she pointed out, “and it is wildly successful from the employers’ point of view …”

She added, “We’re being recognized as a community that values manufacturing, [which is] a wealth-generating sector [and] very beneficial to your economy.”

From the start, she continued, the Precision Machining Program has represented “100-percent collaboration with the actual employers.” Adding that she chairs an advisory committee for it through the manufacturers’ association, Schmidt explained that the program has “been extremely responsive” to suggestions businesses have made about ways to improve it.

Both Eavey and Schmidt also praised Ed Doherty, instructor of the Precision Machining Program at STC. “He is the key to the success [of it],” Eavey added. “I really don’t know when he sleeps,” she said, noting that he is active on social media, he writes blogs, he arranges job-shadowing opportunities for his students and he mentors them.

During their presentation, Schmidt and Eavey gave Doherty an award custom-made by two of his former students.

Ed Doherty (right) works with an unidentified student in the Precision Machining Program. Image courtesy Sarasota County
Ed Doherty (right) works with an unidentified student in the Precision Machining Program. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Doherty told the board he grew up in New England, where skills trades are so highly valued that manufacturers often have waiting lists for jobs. “Hopefully, we can get to that point [in this area],” he added.

One company that recently relocated to the region from Connecticut, he noted, hired three people who had completed the STC program. Representatives of that business have said they are very happy with those employees, he added.

Eavey told the commissioners that CareerEdge is “updating the manufacturing skills study as we speak.” Community manufacturers have pointed to other careers for which they would like to see training offered, she added.

Answering another question from Robinson, Eavey said she believes the Precision Machining Program “is going to play a big role” in conjunction with the Innovation Station the county commissioners recently agreed to support in collaboration with the University of Florida (UF).

In a special meeting on March 18, the County Commission committed $1 million to the Innovation Station over five years. Additionally, the Charles & Margery Barancik Foundation has awarded a five-year, $980,000 grant to it, and the Gulf Coast Community Foundation made a one-year grant of $63,000, a county news release noted. An additional $1 million will come from UF, according to county staff.

Commissioner Christine Robinson. File photo
Commissioner Christine Robinson. File photo

The UF Innovation Station is expected to open within six months in 1,000 to 1,500 square feet of leased office space in Sarasota County, the county news release added. However, UF representatives plan to be in Sarasota County in the meantime, “working to strengthen existing industry connections and foster new ones,” the release noted.

The county’s formal agreement with UF says the Innovation Station will be the university’s first physical extension office of the Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering Experiment Station in the state. Its mission, the agreement explains, will be “to deliver services supportive of economic development by connecting the County’s industry and citizens to the University’s faculty and technology with the goal of enhancing product and career development. The Innovation Station will also work with local education institutions to establish a pipeline of student talent running between middle and high school and the University.”

The UF Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering has more than 9,300 students and $72 million in annual research awards in virtually every discipline, the county release noted. “As one of the largest colleges of engineering in the nation, it is uniquely able to serve the pipeline of talent that current and future local companies need, school officials and local business leaders said,” according to the release.

In her comments to Robinson on March 23, Eavey pointed out that many students in the precision machining program “have an engineering mind.”