Through the lens of a struggling economy, it becomes clear that a trained (or re-trained) work force is key to our region’s prosperity.
Workforce RenovationThrough the lens of a struggling economy, it becomes clear that a trained (or re-trained) work force is key to our region’s prosperityBy Margie Menzel
In the face of rising unemployment that some venture to say “crashes all models,” Floridians are rethinking what it means to be jobless — and what to do about it. Trained professionals are on food stamps. Retirees, their investments depleted, are back at work, or trying to be. For all, flexibility is a necessity.
“In my office, I look down at the entranceway to our One-Stop (Career Center), so I get to see who’s coming in,” said Richard Williams, executive director of the Chipola Regional Workforce Development Board in Marianna. “And that population has changed.”
Williams can even tell by the way they come in. Describing a person who had entered his office only a few minutes earlier, he said: “(They) grabbed hold of the door handle, stopped, looked at the sign on the door, backed up, read a little piece of paper that someone had given them that sent them here, then went back up to the door and took a deep breath before they opened it. Because they never thought that they would be out looking like this.”
December 2008 saw a 16-year high in Florida’s unemployment rate — 8.1 percent — with more than 255,000 jobs lost since December 2007. State economist Amy Baker has predicted a 10-percent unemployment rate by summer if the pace continues.
But there is good news for Northwest Florida, where unemployment is trending lower than the rest of the state. While joblessness is up here too, the majority of counties still are below the state average. Meanwhile, economic and workforce development interests in the region are working together as never before to turn the situation around, to help those who need jobs, to aid local businesses seeking trained workers and to find ways to attract new industry.
Andra Cornelius, vice president of Workforce Florida Inc., the state’s workforce policy and oversight board, characterizes Florida’s Panhandle counties as being “very ready” to meet the challenges of the economic downturn.
“They have laced together, very effectively, their educational partners, their workforce partners, their businesses, their economic development organizations — and that 16-county area works together as a team,” she said.
Bruce Ballister, director of economic development for the Apalachee Regional Planning Council, agreed.
“There’s a lot of interaction, and that is encouraging because it takes a regional approach, especially to bring in the bigger, more lucrative contracts,” he said. Ballister points to a site in Jackson County recently considered by the Hyundai and Kia automotive companies. Both ended up selecting other places, but Ballister said the areas that had been short-listed worked incredibly hard on their sales pitch preparation.
In short, the region’s economic and workforce development officials are working together on a weekly basis to see what business they can attract to the area and how they can then provide the trained work force those enterprises need.
“We have figured out — across the region — that none of us can (individually) meet the needs of a community or an industry,” said Kimberly Moore, CEO of Workforce Plus, which serves Leon, Gadsden and Wakulla counties. “So we’re working hand in hand.”
Regional Approach to Economic Development
All roads lead to Florida’s Great Northwest, the region’s economic development arm, which is composed of county and local economic development groups that work with educational institutions, workforce development boards and businesses to create high-wage, high-skilled jobs.
“What Florida’s Great Northwest wants to do as a region is to go from an economic base of tourism, military and government to what we call a ‘knowledge-based’ industry, which is white-collar and high-tech,” said University of West Florida Interim President Judy Bense. “They want to get new businesses to locate here and employ people in those fields.”
To do that, the organization conducted a study to determine whether local educational institutions — UWF, area high schools, community colleges and technical institutes — were meeting workforce needs. The conclusion: There are huge gaps.
“For example, annually there’s a need for 235 software engineers, and we produced, like, 60,” Bense said. “So where do the other software engineer positions go to? They go to people brought in from outside the area.”
Research by Florida’s Great Northwest has provided Bense with what she called “a road map” to the university’s academic programming.
“They’ve done the studies,” she said. “So why don’t we try to ‘plus up’ engineering, computer science and information technology? This is not rocket science.”
At Tallahassee Community College, a training grant from Florida’s Great Northwest jump-started an industry-certified program in heavy-equipment operation last October. The grant is part of a $15 million U.S. Department of Labor initiative to increase the quality and quantity of workers in the region. By studying industry trends, it was learned that the demand for heavy-equipment operators in the Panhandle was close to 190 new workers yearly.
“But there was only one training program,” said Pam Tedesco, the vice president of workforce initiatives for Florida’s Great Northwest. “It had an enrollment of four.”
By the same token, the organization developed a list of industries it is targeting for expansion by conducting a 2007 study with SRI International to identify the best prospects for regional economic development. Tedesco said major assets range from research at military bases to life-sciences clusters in Tallahassee and Pensacola and the new Panama City-Bay County International Airport.
“We see that as a great opportunity to expand the international trade that’s being done in the region,” she said of the new airport, scheduled to open in May 2010.
Workforce Florida does, too, having inked a memorandum of understanding with Gulf Power, the St. Joe Company and Gulf Coast Community College to develop opportunities tied to the airport. The community college, the lead partner, will open a state-of-the-art Advanced Technology Center to meet workforce training needs.
“In an effort to spur economic development, we continue to talk to companies all over the world, and one consistent priority always rises to the top — a trained work force,” said Britt Greene, president and CEO of St. Joe, when the agreement was signed on Dec. 16. “The historic workforce alliance announced today will prime the job creation machine for Northwest Florida.”
The strategic plan developed by Florida’s Great Northwest identifies four target industry clusters for their growth potential: aviation, aerospace, defense and national security; health science and human performance enhancement; renewable energy and environment; and transportation and logistics services. Analysis also showed the value of information technology and research and engineering services to all the target areas.
Thus the STEM disciplines — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — are in increasing demand.
Colleges Focus on Retraining
Having agreed on the workforce skills needed to attract businesses, Northwest Florida’s educational institutions are adjusting their curricula.
“We’re applying more of a business model to academic programming,” UWF’s Bense said. “That means we will prune and fertilize. In times of economic stress like we’re in now, you prune the lower-performing and lower-productive programs and you fertilize the ones, for example, that are in the STEM areas, that there are workforce needs for.”
Lakeisha Norris, a junior majoring in pre-professional biology at UWF, hopes to earn her degree in dentistry, serve in the U.S. Air Force and open her own dental practice. Succeeding in a STEM discipline has boosted her confidence.
“It’s opened a lot of doors,” she said. “You know you’ve accomplished something that’s really complicated – even other students tell me that.” She also gave credit to the university for keeping it smaller and simpler. “They try to cater to students. It really helps.”
The region’s educational institutions have more students now. Enrollment is especially up at the community colleges, which is typical during an economic downturn.
“When the economy is good, people don’t think about training or retraining,” said Bud Riviere, dean of workforce development and continuing education at Chipola College in Marianna. “When the economy is bad and they realize they are skill-deficient, in a lot of instances — if they can afford to — they come to school or come back to school and get trained, retrained or upgrade their skills and competencies.”
Workers in residential construction are especially upgrade-ready, Cornelius said.
“The skills that those workers have deployed with respect to home construction — with additional upgrades — could be transferred,” she said. “What comes to mind is ‘re-skilling’ those individuals to consider jobs in the energy sector and the alternative-energy sector.”
Energy and alternative energy are growing workforce concerns. Florida State University’s Institute for Energy Systems, Economics and Sustainability recently announced $6.5 million in research grants. Chipola College has a $297,431 grant from Workforce Florida Inc. to train line technicians for four utility companies. The school also plans to open its own training center for line technicians serving Northwest Florida.
In February, Florida’s Great Northwest announced a $347,385 workforce training grant to Gulf Power for a renewable energy skills program; the utility company is putting up $900,442. Last summer, Tallahassee Community College began partnering with the University of Central Florida’s Banner Center for Alternative Energy to offer courses in Solar-Thermal Hot Water Heating Technician and Photovoltaic Solar Energy Technician. The Banner Center seeds such programs at universities, community colleges and workforce agencies statewide.
“Everyone can benefit from these classes,” said Ben Bloodworth, who co-owns Sol Verde Renewable Energy Solutions in Apalachicola. He and three colleagues drove four hours for each class they attended, but he says the certification and networking alone were worth it.
Health care is the only industry sector currently adding jobs, said Workforce Florida’s Cornelius. Community colleges have a waiting list for health care courses.
Beth Kirkland, executive director of the Tallahassee/Leon Economic Development Council, worked with local health care providers to develop bigbendhealth.com, an online service to match employers and employees.
“That’s why we have industry-sector roundtables,” Kirkland said. “They predominantly create initiatives to help increase the workforce skills of a particular sector … They offer all the training to help people already involved in health care or those looking to be in health care to upgrade their skills.”
Job training with a fast turnaround is spreading. In August 2008, Tallahassee Community College began Quick Jobs, affordable courses in 10 in-demand occupations to be completed within 90 days. In addition to alternative energy construction, they include Medical Billing and Coding, Medical Transcription, Electrician Helper, Plumber’s Helper and CNC Machining Operator.
But John Chapin, TCC’s vice president for economic and work force development, cautioned that some Quick Jobs courses may be short-term solutions.
“Medical transcription is a hot job right now,” he said, “but with medical facilities going to electronic records, that’s not a job that’s got a big future.”
“(New employees are) coming with the technical skills, but not the soft skills,” said Susan Nelms, executive director of Workforce Escarosa in Pensacola. “So we’re trying to develop some programs that do nothing but work on work ethics and soft skills and interviewing — some of the things that have been forgotten, I think, in our current work force.”
Generally, professionals can transfer their skills with a minimum of training. Cornelius said employers will hire on the basis of attitude — being eager, ready to work and able to learn on the job.
“Those are very, very key,” she said. “Many employers have said to us, ‘If you can help us identify an individual that has a great work ethic, we will hire them and train them on the job.’ ”
Workforce development boards are partnering with educational institutions to boost those skills, including the skills that involve how to act in a professional setting.
“There’s a real dichotomy,” TCC’s Chapin said. “We have regions of the area where the work force is just outstanding: highly trained, highly skilled. Then there are other regions where the folks are woefully unprepared for work.”
In Gadsden County, for instance, Tallahassee Community College allocated $50,000 last fall for a training program aimed at helping 500 people laid off by Quincy Farms, until then the county’s largest employer. Many of the displaced workers needed basic English and computer skills to compete for jobs, and TCC is picking up the tab.
“One thing we have discovered with the downturn is the lack of computer skills — across the board,” said Moore of Workforce Plus.
“The Information Age and the world market have changed the free market to such a fast-changing place,” said Gulf Coast Community College’s Stevenson. “Unless people are ready to adapt and adjust and cope with that, they’re going to have problems.”
But if they can adapt, they can have a bright future in Northwest Florida. As the region’s employers and employees discover the extent of their interdependence, they are learning to create a guaranteed magnet for business: a skilled, professional work force.