How Southwest Florida leaders are ramping up effort to train the types of workers that our companies need
Shelly Osterhout dreads hiring.
“Help wanted” ought to be synonymous with good things—a signal that Computer Solutions of America, her South Fort Myers technology services business, is expanding. But Osterhout knows finding a local candidate with the right skills will be a headache.
“It could take us up to three months to train them,” Osterhout says.
Most area colleges, she says, don’t teach the kinds of skills required for work in her company or the 15-or-so other Southwest Florida tech firms offering similar services. So, when she finds someone with aptitude and strong fundamentals, she’ll pour resources into getting him or her up to speed.
That’s not exactly efficient business management.
She’s sympathetic to the colleges’ limitations and the near impossibility of keeping pace with ever-evolving technology. Still, she says, more must be done to keep employers like her from searching beyond Southwest Florida for qualified help.
The good news: A lot more is being done.
Colleges, K-12 schools and adult education institutions have partnered with business leaders to zero in on the region’s workforce needs and find new ways to address them—launching internships, creating new majors and training programs, updating established ones, even turning classrooms over to industry executives.
Make no mistake, educators and business leaders have historically collaborated to respond to changing industry needs. But lately, the major players are ramping up their efforts, particularly in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.
In 2012, educators and business leaders began collaborating on a Workforce Now initiative spearheaded by The News-Press and designed to figure out what area business owners need, what vacancies they predict, what educators are doing to address workforce needs, what training gaps hinder employability and, critically, why those gaps exist.
New research from Florida Gulf Coast University, Hodges University and Edison State College has begun to answer those questions. A set of three studies released in late October offers a comprehensive look at current and upcoming workforce needs.
“It’s no longer speculation,” says Hodges’ Aysegul Timur, the program chair for business and public administration in the Johnson School of Business. “So now we are using all these facts to drive action.”
The range of needs is stark. The highest occupational demands are, in many cases, the region’s lowest-paying jobs, including cashiers, wait staff, retail sales people, buildings and grounds workers, food-service workers. This tells researchers something critical: Even though Southwest Florida will always be rooted in tourism, the region clearly needs to continue diversifying, Timur says.
On the other end of the spectrum, three big players, Lee Memorial Health Systems, Chico’s FAS and Arthrex, seek highly educated workers in jobs ranging from nursing to supply chain management to engineering and merchandising. What’s more, they collectively realized that there are few people in our area equipped to handle information technology and understand business principles.
“It was an ah-ha moment to see these major employers had the same challenges,” says Lisa Gardiner, a spokeswoman for Arthrex, a medical device maker based in Naples.
It’s impossible to list all of the many workforce efforts happening across Southwest Florida, but the following offers a glimpse of how educators and industry leaders are teaming up to address gaps in our region, particularly in high-tech and high-end jobs, the kinds of positions that will continue developing Southwest Florida beyond its base industries.
At the center of it all is the Southwest Florida Workforce Development board, the agency that runs career centers and online job boards linking employers with job seekers, offers training scholarships for qualified applicants, monitors regional job needs and serves as an intermediary between industry and educators.
The organization, for example, helped linked Arthrex with the region’s technical schools when the company discovered the shortage of machinists. It hopes to collaborate with the Small Business Development Center at Florida Gulf Coast University, which wants to create some sort of retail certification program because of the abundance of vacancies. It helps downsized workers retrain for new careers and serves as a gatekeeper to help prevent too many people from glutting a field.
Now, the agency is refining its role even further. Workforce development boards have had to rely on a state-issued “targeted occupations list” that dictated the kinds of jobs it could help jobseekers fill.
A new rule expected to take effect this summer will allow the local boards to consult with business owners to get a truer and more up-to-date picture of their needs.
“We really fought for that,” spokesman Jim Wall says.
Joe Paterno, the agency’s executive director, has also been pushing the state to set aside money that workforce development boards can tap when businesses need a new training program. Too often, Paterno said, the educators spend a year or more awaiting state approval and funding for programs that support industry demands. That forces employers to recruit elsewhere and hampers economic development efforts. Relocating businesses want assurances that a qualified workforce or training mechanisms are in place, Paterno said.
“Everybody likes the idea, it’s just a matter of whether they’ll put aside the money,” Paterno said.
Starting Young: Dunbar High School
Adults joke that today’s kids are born with thumbs itching to text and fingers primed to swoosh, but Dunbar High School in Fort Myers is taking those innate tech skills to perhaps unprecedented levels.
Dunbar students can earn more than 24 industry certifications by the time they graduate. The school is partnering with the online course provider MassiveU to develop a new app, is a Microsoft Innovation school and is undergoing a $35 million renovation that will allow for even more technology and more industry-friendly teaching techniques.
Dunbar is churning out students such as sophomore August Taylor, who is studying his fourth computer language, Python, and senior Juan Ocampo who works nearly full-time as an intern in Chico’s information technology division.
“I’ve been training most of the new guys and the new contractors. And we just got two new interns from my school. I’ve been training them, too,” Ocampo says.
All the while, teachers pause for lessons on interpersonal skills, which business leaders say are becoming a lost art.
“We spend a lot of time practicing handshakes,” says technology instructor Dan Trembley. “My paycheck is only dependent on their reading scores. So why do I do this? Because I know they need it.”
Hodges University: Filling a need…quickly
Southwest Florida’s biggest employers were missing one very critical staff person — the information systems business analyst, a person with enough “geek” to manage computer systems and enough “corner office” to understand the workings of the business world.
When the Workforce Now research revealed that gap, Hodges University created a new information systems business analyst major. Timur and Albert Ball, dean of the Fischer School of Technology at Hodges, pulled together a curriculum drawn from the school’s business administration and information systems manager programs.
The program started last semester with 22 students.
Ball summarized his industry advisers’ responses: “Do we have to wait four years for them to graduate?”
Nova Southeastern University: One new major fills two big needs
Southwest Florida is home to lots of immigrants needing work.
Southwest Florida schools need lots of STEM educators.
Nova Southeastern, which has long helped grow the region’s healthcare and education workforce, saw these two seemingly disconnected needs and figured out how to satisfy them in one fell swoop.
The university in January will debut a new master’s degree, the International Teachers Education Program, designed for foreign-born residents who hold a bachelor’s degree from an accredited university in their native countries. Those degrees don’t hold weight in most U.S. public schools.
Once Nova verifies the degrees, these international residents can enter a master’s program that will train them as STEM educators.
“It’s responding to a need in the community,” says Kevin Hunter, who directs Nova’s Fort Myers campus.
Tech Schools: Educating a more advanced workforce, seeking more visibility
“We aren’t your dad’s trade school,” says Dorin Oxender, director of the Immokalee Technical Center. “It isn’t for those who can’t. It’s for people who realize the training leads directly to work.”
The Workforce Now research and presentations brought technical schools into the spotlight. These academies are designed to respond quickly to changing workforce needs, deliver a mix of high-end and entry-level training and to graduate career-ready students with little or no debt.
The biggest recent headline is a new, 1,500-hour machining program developed at the Immokalee center in conjunction with Arthrex, U.S. Sugar, Shaw Development and Haynes Corp.
The average age of a machinist is 62, Oxender says. “This is a trade we stopped training for a couple of generations ago because we were outsourcing our manufacturing.”
Before the 1,500-hour program, the Immokalee center and other area technical schools had offered an intro to machining course.
“Seventy percent of our products are made in Southwest Florida,” says Mike Boose, Arthrex Manufacturing’s director of human resources. “We knew this was a need we had to fill.”
Now, technical directors in all three counties and the Workforce Development Board have their sights set on rebuilding the region’s construction industry and hope to introduce new on-the-job and classroom training opportunities for tradespeople.
“It’s a good sign in Southwest Florida,” says Oxender of the industry’s resurging demand for help.
FGCU & Algenol: Real-world skills taught by real-world experts
Employers are clamoring for creative, independent thinkers with an ability to turn ideas into reality.
Last semester, officials from Algenol, the Bonita Springs-based biotech company, designed a new class, Biotech Entrepreneurship, with marine science professor Aswani Volety, the interim dean of liberal arts.
The class, open to all majors, takes students from concept development to financing to production to pitch presentations to regulatory, legal and human resources issues. It included trips to Algenol and landed a couple of students with internships.
“We want students to know they don’t have to move to California to take these jobs,” says Algenol’s Mitch Ruzek, voicing a common concern among the region’s high-tech sector. Often, students don’t even know these jobs are right in their backyards.
Lee Memorial: Collaborating with schools far and near
Is there an educational institution Lee Memorial Health Systems isn’t working with? The health care giant advises or partners with everyone from high school educators to the region’s big medical training programs at Edison, FGCU and Nova.
Now, it’s welcoming a new partner: Florida State University. Starting in July, the university will send medical residents to Lee County to complete their training. The hope is that these doctors-in-training will set up permanent practices in Southwest Florida. The health system listed “physicians” as one of its major workforce needs.
“Our medical community is approximately 55 years old, and at some point they are going to want to retire,” says Randy Toscano, a business partner in the human resources department.
A good start, but a ways to go
Lately, Shelly Osterhout feels a whole lot better about educators’ responsiveness to business needs.
“Truthfully, I had no idea they would work as quickly as they did,” says Osterhout, who jumped at Edison College President Jeff Allbritten’s 2012 invitation to business leaders to help shape the school’s programs. “And their communication with me was amazing.”
It’s not easy to keep current, says John Meyer, the dean of the School of Business and Technology at Edison and one of the Workforce Now researchers. Public colleges must adhere to state curriculum frameworks and receive state approval before launching new for-credit programs.
But the college has been picking apart its classes to make sure they are relevant and looking for ways to match what’s taught in the classroom with what industry expects on certification exams.
“Every course has had to fight for its life,” Meyer says. “Every one of our degrees has undergone that degree of scrutiny.”
There’s lots more work to do. The next Workforce Now report will focus on IT needs. But industry and education leaders are glad that everyone is at the table.
“We came out with all this research for one reason: We want to make this region even better,” says Timur.
Picking up some slack
Junior Achievement teaches students with skills that businesses say are lacking.
It’s no secret that schools are overwhelmed these days. With all of the testing administered on the K-12 level, and calls for performance measures at college standards, most teachers are scrambling to just complete their daily tasks.
That’s where Junior Achievement of Southwest Florida comes in. The business organization is dedicated to teaching young people financial literacy, entrepreneurship, data analysis, critical thinking and those “soft skills” that area employers say are seriously lacking: how to dress, how to shake hands, how to present ideas.
“The schools cannot do it all,” says Anne Frazier, the group’s president.
Among Junior Achievement’s recent additions is an entrepreneurship course for Collier County high school juniors. The course includes a monthly guest lecturer connected via Skype to classrooms countywide.
The group, in consultation with educators, is also concentrating on middle-schoolers, hoping to instill strong industry skills and a love of STEM subjects early on.
“Middle school students are at a critical time—they can either go right or left,” Frazier says. “We need to be making those investments in the younger generation.”