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Wednesday, Jul 30, 2014
Tom Jackson

Jackson: Achtung! From Germany, with hope for the unskilled

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The good news, assuming you don’t gouge beneath the veneer, is unemployment in both Florida and the Tampa area continued its downward trend in December, reaching levels not seen since the middle of 2008. For the record, according to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, the numbers are 6.2 percent for the state and 5.7 for our region, with Pasco shaving off nearly a half-point to hit 6.7 percent.

So far, so good. More? Last year the Tampa Bay area led the state in jobs added (35,400), outpacing runner-up Metro Orlando (32,000). But, as noted, our euphoria can’t bear too much scrutiny. About half the decline in the unemployment rate is a result of Floridians dropping out of the potential work force; the state’s labor participation pool — that is, folks employed or looking for work — has slipped below 60 percent.

Now, for your juxtapositional entertainment, this reminder from April 2013, when the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council took the lid off a basket of statistics that was simultaneously distressing and rich with opportunity: According to the group’s manufacturing gap analysis, 2,139 area job openings went begging over a lack of skilled workers.

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The gap between openings and capable workers was projected to hit nearly 2,800 by this spring and almost 3,500 before 2016.

In other words, had there been a pool of properly trained applicants, the Tampa area would have increased its jobs surge by a healthy 6 percent.

And we’re not talking about jobs making fries or beds, either. We’re talking about jobs that shrink the so-called income-inequality gap: machinists, welders, solderers, fabricators, mechanical design engineers, mill operators, maintenance mechanics, quality inspectors and more, 107 specialized skill sets in all, all paying well above the area’s median income.

What’s a region to do? Having traveled twice to Germany as part of local delegations since she became a Pasco County commissioner in 2012, Kathryn Starkey has an idea: Establish what’s called an “Innovation Training Center” based on the German teaching and apprenticeship model.

“Manufacturing means we have a gross domestic product,” Starkey says, “not gross domestic services.”

As envisioned by the planning council, the start-up ITC — the “center” portion is a misnomer; training academies would be dispersed around the area — would serve students in Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. Accordingly, Pasco lawmakers have made a $1.3 million seed-money request their top priority for the Legislature’s upcoming session, the last Wesley Chapel Republican Will Weatherford will oversee as speaker of the House.

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For what it’s worth, the entire delegation — senators John Legg and Wilton Simpson and House members Weatherford, presumptive speaker-designate Richard Corcoran and rookie Amanda Murphy, the lone Democrat — seemed unified in their support. They should be.

Similar German-oriented apprenticeship academies are popping up around the Southeast, and the presence of centers practicing the German-skills method in Charlotte, N.C., helps account not only for a surge of hiring at the Siemens turbine building plant there, but also the daily handful of nonstop flights to Munich and Frankfort.

That could be us, Starkey says, and her tall Teutonic companion, Tool Crib USA area sales manager Timo Kramer, agrees without hesitation. German companies hoping to expand in the United States have no doubts about American workers’ capacity to produce; it’s simply their technical skills gap holding them back.

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That’s changing where other ITCs have begun, and Kramer is sufficiently confident it would here, as well, that he’s vowed his company is prepared to back state action with a substantial in-kind contribution, likely in the form of machines and work benches on which students would train.

With governments at every level already spending unconscionable amounts of money on job training and retraining projects, not to mention subsidies for college students, why would anyone pay attention to the German model? Just this: Apprentices are matched with companies that foot the bill for training and guarantee well-paying jobs for graduates.

Imagine. Skills that can’t be taken away, resist obsolescence and aren’t geographically constrained; immediate employment; and no student loan to pay off.

We can get that here? We can get that here. Alert the discouraged workers. Help could be on the way.

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