Although Southwest Florida has an enviable 2.6% unemployment rate, many employers are still seeking workers with the skills or credentials for in-demand positions. That continuing need for a more skilled employee pool was the driving force behind the Southwest Florida Equitable Jobs Pipeline, a workforce development initiative created by Florida Gulf Coast University in partnership with FutureMakers Coalition at Collaboratory.
The Equitable Jobs Pipeline will be funded by a $22.9 million grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration’s Good Jobs Challenge. Out of more than 500 applications, Southwest Florida’s proposal was one of just 32 awarded a grant through the American Rescue Plan. And though the three-year program will be administered by FGCU, FutureMakers Coalition and other partners, Dr. Aysegul Timur, vice president and vice provost of Strategy and Program Innovation at FGCU, said earning the grant was a community effort.
“We reached out to our major employers in the region … Arthrex, NCH, Lee Health, Scotlynn, Neogenomics, U.S. Sugar, Uline, Hertz—large organizations, midsize organizations, chambers of commerce and economic development offices. We got 60-plus support and commitment-to-hire letters from Southwest Florida,” Timur says. “When we added up the commitments-to-hire—how many individuals they would hire after they’re trained—the number was close to 2,500. So with this grant, we will be filling out 2,500 positions, because already, these companies told us, ‘Hey, we have the gaps in these areas. Once they’re trained in these areas, we will be hiring them.’”
Aiming at the areas with the most pressing needs, the Southwest Florida Equitable Jobs Pipeline will focus specifically on providing skills and credentials for careers in health care, K-12 education, manufacturing and logistics. But, more importantly, the program will target underserved populations who have traditionally encountered barriers to the education and resources needed to attain the skills needed for better-paying jobs.
“Almost 60% of working-age adults in Southwest Florida don’t have a credential beyond high school, and they may not even have a GED or high school diploma,” says Tessa LeSage, director of the FutureMakers Coalition. “The first and most obvious barrier is that most education programs are not designed for adults. As an adult, you have a whole variety of new and competing responsibilities and challenges that make it more difficult for you to go back to school. Number two is access … the ability to actually get to school or get to classes. If you have a car broken down, that could be the reason why you drop out of school. We’ve had folks explain that they were going to have to quit because they couldn’t afford to put food on their table for the last two weeks of school. These are some of the challenges that occur when you can’t get the kind of job that can pay you to afford a decent lifestyle here in Southwest Florida.”
Though the Equitable Jobs Pipeline is a new initiative, its origins lie in smaller programs established over the last eight years by FutureMakers Coalition, FGCU and other local colleges, technical institutes and partners. Looking forward, the hope is that the Pipeline can not only create a more skilled workforce, but also serve as an opportunity to build for the future.
“We started from an idea and got some seed money from Lumina Foundation and other private funders that got us to start implementing these projects in a very small scale. With the EDA’s Good Jobs Challenge, we saw that as an opportunity to scale up what we were doing. So this is our angel investor,” says Dr. Amir Neto, director of the Regional Economic Research Institute and an assistant professor of economics in the Lutgert College of Business at FGCU. “Ideally, this is sort of an experiment. If this scaling up works, we should be able to create a sustainable way and a different way … to how we recruit in Southwest Florida that is maybe, hopefully, replicable across the country.”
While the Equitable Jobs Pipeline will foster a more skilled workforce, its larger goal is to improve lives and make Southwest Florida a better place to live for everyone. And while the $22.9 million Good Jobs Challenge grant is the largest ever awarded to FGCU, Timur says it could ultimately pay even larger dividends for years to come.
“It’s a big, game-changing initiative that will absolutely help workforce development. This grant is our commitment to prepare a better-aligned workforce between our educational partners,” she says. “We are investing in our talent in Southwest Florida for better economic growth and economic development. This is what I see as our investment in human capital in Southwest Florida.”
To enhance the success of the Equitable Jobs Pipeline, FutureMakers Coalition will pair each adult learner with a Navigator who can help identify and manage the hurdles many may face while taking the next step in their education.
“The Navigator is the face of the Pipeline. It’s a crucial role … in making sure that we get to as many people as possible and to make sure that, once people are in the program, they are moving forward,” Neto says. “[The Navigator] will learn about a participant’s barriers, so we can understand the barriers and try to remove them.”
More than simply guides, Navigators also will help connect Pipeline participants to the nonprofit and educational opportunities they need. Ultimately, the goal is to match every adult learner directly with an employer, and a career.
“There are services and support out there that can help us get through these things that (could) end your school career,” LeSage says. “A Navigator basically walks alongside them … helping to navigate the system, the nonprofit sector, the education system and hopefully connecting to jobs directly with employers, in order to help adults become successful in achieving their education and career goals.”
A hub for talent
Owing to the efforts of FutureMakers Coalition, FGCU and other partners to develop a more skilled workforce, in January 2020, Southwest Florida was designated as a Talent Hub by the Lumina Foundation in partnership with the Kresge Foundation. The designation, which was awarded to only 25 communities nationwide, also played a big role in earning the Good Jobs Challenge Grant.
“Becoming a Talent Hub required us to really step up our game. It required us to do some really quick turnaround projects that would show whether or not we could accelerate our ability to increase the number of people that have credentials beyond high school. And we did an amazing job at it, even during a pandemic,” LeSage says. “That put us at a new level when it comes to how we’re regarded in terms of our ability to work together to solve education and workforce challenges. We’ve been honing our practice (and) we’ve been working with other leaders in the State of Florida and across the country to understand the best practices to share. And as a result, I think we’ve brought some of the best things that are happening around the country right here to Southwest Florida.”