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Filling the Gap

Behind the efforts to address the worker shortage in Southwest Florida.



Fort Myers came in at No. 15 on
the U.S. Census Bureau’s list of fastest-growing cities, released last spring. Lee County overall? Up 14.5 percent between 2013 and 2018. Collier’s population jumped nearly 12 percent in the same time period. There’s no sign of a slowdown.

That means more shoppers, homeowners, renters, drivers, patients, and consumers of goods and services. And that means a need for more workers.

But the area already is experiencing occupational gaps, according to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity. Southwest Florida was short 6,758 workers in 2018—a 30 percent higher gap than the one the department reported in 2017.

Many of the open jobs pay low wages. While they can be plum positions for moving up—and many local companies are nurturing the workforce by treating them that way—filling those entry-level positions remains a challenge, employers say.

So what are local nonprofits, public schools, colleges and businesses doing about this? How is the Southwest Florida community positioning itself to attract and retain a viable workforce?

They’re organizing. They’re talking to one another. And they’re coming up with innovative ways to train and retain workers now and for the future.

Like parenting a child, preparing a region for a financially stable, healthy and independent future comes with no manual and requires some guesswork. The scope of the task is hard to grasp.

“For a community to be vibrant we have to look at this from all different angles, from cradle to career,” says Sarah Owen, president and CEO of the Southwest Florida Community Foundation, whose 6-year-old FutureMakers Coalition, among other innovative community-spanning projects, has been instrumental in uncovering and finding ways to meet the region’s economic challenges.

Where growth-minded companies were once most concerned with the tax incentives offered for relocating to or expanding in an area, they’re now examining the workforce to see if it’s big enough and skilled enough to meet its needs. “They’re asking, ‘If I move, or start my business in your area, is there anybody who can work there?’” Owen says.

Gulfshore Business interviewed numerous sources, including educators, community leaders and students, to explore the many ways Southwest Florida is actively filling employment gaps, thus creating higher-paying jobs and diversifying our economy. Here is a sampling of what we found.

HOMEGROWN SOLUTIONS

Companies think creatively to attract and retain good employees.

Low salaries, high housing costs, scant unemployment ... what’s a recruiter to do?

Get creative. And get generous.

“Employers are at a point where they need to put their best foot forward,” says Michael Dalby, president of the Greater Naples Chamber of Commerce. “If they see a good employee [or potential employee], they’re going to have to do what they can to recruit or retain them by offering higher wages, more flexible scheduling [and] creative benefit packages.”


Suffolk Construction has done that. In a pilot program that just began in January, Suffolk will pay up to $100 a month on an active student loan for any fully benefited employee, new or existing, says Logan Wallick, a human resources professional whose title is “Director of People and Culture.” He’s based in Southwest Florida in a national role for the company.


As of December—a month before the offering even began—317 employees had signed up to take advantage of it. “[Chairman and CEO] John Fish is a huge believer in education and really got the message that this is one of the biggest burdens for employees,” Wallick says. “If we can take their minds off the student debt they’ve accrued, why not help with that? It’s a very high-performance culture, and this is another way to show employees that we really value their education and their contributions to the company.”

Advancement training and education offered at no cost is another way employers are attracting and retaining employees.

Facing a continual need for certified nursing assistants, Lee Health has partnered with CareerSource Southwest Florida and the Southwest Florida Community Foundation to help potential CNAs afford the approximately $1,600 training course.

“Because the unemployment rate is so low, we have to think outside the box as to what new and creative ways we can collaborate and fill our needs,” says Michelle Zech, who works in Lee Health’s human resources division and focuses on workforce planning and development.

Cape Coral Technical College began a night course for certified nursing assistants in January, Zech says, adding to several local high school academies whose students can graduate with the certification and get hired right out of high school.

To fill pharmacy technician positions, Lee Health began its own program about a year ago. Every six months, a class of about 10 people from positions both inside and outside the system finish their training and become PharmTechs, and nearly all of them are hired by Lee Health.

This program is attractive to plenty of entry-level workers at Lee Health.

“Environmental, transport, food service, they are true pipelines for us,” Zech said. “People can come in to those jobs and take advantage of our tuition reimbursement after a year. They can get their foot in the door and also get an idea of what kind of health care program they want to be in.”

RELATED: Chico’s keeps its ranks full through recruitment efforts. 

STARTING EARLY

High school academies introduce students to careers.

If you want to grow a workforce, you’ve got to start watering your seeds early.

That seems to be the philosophy in Southwest Florida, anyway. Both Lee and Collier counties have developed high school academies that introduce students to careers in medicine, technology, hospitality and other topics, while they fulfill their core academic requirements.

Laurie Metz, a certified teacher and registered nurse at Dunbar High School, believes this is the best way to show students the huge range of occupations within even that one field. “I highly encourage them to try on different shoes,” says Metz, who teaches an overview course on biomedical sciences.

If a shoe fits, the student can continue his or her studies at a technical college or university.


These high school academies are accelerating the career exploration process, once
the purview of colleges and their survey-style prerequisite courses. They’re saving young people a bundle, too, allowing them to explore potential careers for free and helping them rule out the jobs that don’t fit before they start paying college or technical school tuition.

Students in Dunbar’s biomedical program learn about human body systems, medical interventions and biomedical innovations. In the classroom, they’ll study things such as how environmental conditions affect human health and then in the lab they’ll test water samples for contaminants. They learn about cell biology, anatomy, human medical testing, DNA and other topics. Metz teaches the first year. In the 10th through 12th grades, they’re taught by Justin Summy, a former research scientist

who holds a Ph.D. in immunology.
The instructors stress, “Medicine is more than doctors and nurses,” Metz says. Students may come away with a desire to repair medical equipment, to become X-ray technicians, lab technicians, environmental scientists, medical records specialists or specialists in any one of a vast number of biomedical fields besides those that require bedside manner.
While the biomedical program serves as an introduction to the field, some high school academy programs do end in certifications that allow students to start working right after graduation. Metz’s son, for example, is among graduates of Dunbar High’s technology academy, which offers 26 industry certifications, and, in fact, was the first Microsoft-certified high school in the world.

In Collier County, each high school has at least two academies. Subjects range from engineering, finance and IT to criminal justice, 3-D animation and teacher education.

“Those academies are gearing students up for those potential jobs,” says Collier Superintendent Kamela Patton. After a third year in an academy, students have the opportunity to spend time in summer internships, as long as they’ve met the prerequisite: a Naples Chamber of Commerce-sponsored conference on professional behavior.

The internships, Patton says, have opened students’ eyes to the possibilities available in their hometown.

“This is a comment we’ve heard echoed throughout these internships: ‘We didn’t know we had these kinds of jobs here.’”

And that’s good news for educators and employers who’d like to see the fruits of their labors in action.

RELATED: Lorenzo Walker Technical College trains students for great jobs. 

TIME TO GRADUATE—FINALLY

FGCU offers a streamlined degree program.

People who have 18 months or more of college credit and want to finish a bachelor’s degree can do so at Florida Gulf Coast University, through a combination of live class and online coursework in three basic fields. The program began in October at FGCU’s Charlotte County location and is tailored for working adults who want to finish the college education they started—whenever that was. “It’s hard for them. They can’t exactly quit their jobs to go back to college,” says Vice President for Student Success and Enrollment Mitch Cordova.


Degrees can be completed in integrated studies, interdisciplinary entrepreneurship studies, or resort and hospitality management.

“The three programs we started worked well with the workforce development needs of our community as well as the spirit of our region,” says Cordova. For an integrated studies degree, students tailor the course load to meet their interests and goals. Each plan must be approved by the program and meet all other academic standards.

Courses take eight weeks to complete, rather than the typical 16. Tuition is the same as for the traditional student. Transfers of credit are handled on an individual basis.

The plan is to take programs out into the community where students are. Beginning in the spring, it should be available at locations in Lee, Collier, Hendry, Glades and Charlotte counties.

“President [Michael] Martin recognized that we have to, as an institution, be more committed to bringing our educational programs to our community,” Cordova adds.

SQUEEZED OUT

Housing costs for many are out of reach. How did that happen?

The median home sales price in Collier County: $324,700.

The average annual wage in Collier: $45,448.

No, you cannot get that much house on that little money.

Housing costs are among the biggest hurdles employers face when trying to recruit workers to the area (Lee County’s housing prices are lower but still unattainable for many lower-wage workers).

A couple of factors brought us to this point of disconnect between workers needed and the cost of housing.

One is the nature of Southwest Florida itself.

Every region has its assets that
 draw businesses and individuals. They are its natural strengths.
“If we lived in West Virginia, it
 might be mineral deposits,” says 
Christopher Westley, director of the
Regional Economic Research Institute
and a professor of economics at FGCU’s
Lutgert College of Business. “In Silicon
 Valley, it would be tech skills. For us, this region
is desirable for tourism and retirement, and from that flows certain industries that dominate our area. It largely depends on workers whose productivity does not justify especially high wages.”

Another problem is situational and occurred federally in the wake of the burst of the housing bubble.

“First, lower-than-market interest rates discourage the real saving necessary for a vibrant housing market serving all segments of the housing market,” Westley has written.

“Second, they force holders of capital to seek out alternative areas of return given that traditional financial instruments pay out so little. To the extent that real estate serves this purpose, higher-priced projects pay higher returns than those serving low-income markets.” So builders choose to pursue higher-priced projects.

Add the fact that there is a dwindling supply of land to build on, and solutions are difficult to find.

Various organizations and government entities are working toward finding answers, but there are no overnight fixes.

Collier County voters, for example, agreed to tax themselves an extra 1 percent for the next seven years or until the county amasses $420 million. Among other things, that money will initiate a workforce housing land trust fund, a workforce technical training center and infrastructure improvements.


Early supporters of the measure were the Greater Naples Chamber of Commerce and local businesses.

“Employers throughout Collier County—including some of the area’s largest public and private sector employers, such as Arthrex, NCH and Collier County Public Schools—have been outspoken about the need to increase the inventory of affordable workforce housing,” says Michael Dalby, president of the Naples Chamber. “Business, community and nonprofit leaders continue to look for solutions and encourage local lawmakers to create a regulatory environment to make it more desirable to develop affordable workforce housing in Collier.”


“Certainly this is a great place to live,” says Mike Boose, human resources manager for Arthrex. “But certainly for entry-level hourly and even entry-level salary it’s difficult,” he says. “That’s the reason Arthrex has taken a lead in the community in affordable housing solutions.”

RELATED: A driven Tamika Seaton goes from entry-level newcomer to seasoned executive. 

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