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Tuesday, Jul 29, 2014
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Manufacturing academy aims to close ‘skills gap’

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— A survey last year of 109 manufacturing companies in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties showed a chronic need for high-skilled workers, from solderers to machinists to welders.

The “skills gap” that the survey revealed exists despite the ongoing efforts of numerous vocational training programs in high schools and community colleges.

The problem, experts say, is that training programs are fragmented with little coordination among themselves or with manufacturing industries that are crying out for skilled workers.

“It is fragmented,” said Hillsborough County Commissioner Al Higginbotham, who has been working on the skills gap problem for some time. “It just needs someone to come in who is willing to get in the weeds and work with the manufacturers and the government side of this and bring it all together.”

That process is finally coming to fruition after more than a year’s worth of conversations among county government, educators and manufacturers. Wednesday, county commissioners got a look at a three-pronged plan, the goal of which is to train students in the latest manufacturing skills and link them with companies that need employees with those skills.

But reaching that goal is more complex than it sounds. First, the different technical and workforce training programs in high schools and at Hillsborough Community College will have to be pulled together into a “Manufacturing Academy” that will work with industry to make sure the right skills are being taught.

“We need to basically build a better training program,” said Ron Barton, who heads up economic development for the county government. “It’s not redundant; it’s taking what we have and making it better.”

That job will fall to CareerSource of Tampa Bay, the local workforce board funded by the state Department of Economic Opportunity. The county has appropriated $1 million for the manufacturing skills program, and $335,000 of that will go to CareerSource as administrator.

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Ed Peachey, president of CareerSource, could not be reached for comment. But in a March interview, Peachey said he envisioned a seamless “pipeline” of training that spits out skilled workers with certifications to prove their skills.

“It will probably be a bunch of different (training sites) that will eventually all be aligned,” Peachey said, “so as people progress through the pipeline, it will be real clear what the next stop is to reach the next certification level and what that translates into in the employment world.”

So far, however, no one has been able to articulate how exactly the academy will work. The problem is especially complex because of the special needs of different industries.

“That’s the thing that kind of makes it complicated: the diversity of manufacturing in Tampa,” said Scott Brooks, general director of career, technical and adult education for Hillsborough schools. “Some of them are small businesses that are very specialized in their fields.”

Today’s manufacturing industries are more technologically driven than 20th century companies, and that technology is evolving at a breakneck pace. It’s hard for schools and universities, which are limited by funding and bureaucracy, to keep up with the latest technological changes.

“We have to be very dynamic in manufacturing work because you’re dealing with global markets,” said Ken Jurgensmeyer, president of Heat-Pipe Technology Inc. in Tampa. “Sometimes the problem is universities and colleges are not fast enough to respond to what those market forces demand.”

Jurgensmeyer said one of the main reasons there is a skills gap is that younger workers are not interested in technology. Many of them saw their parents get laid off in the 1990s as manufacturing jobs moved overseas. They don’t want to follow suit.

That leaves older workers who, though highly skilled, are aging out of the workforce.

“One of the main reasons (manufacturers) are concerned is that there’s an aging skilled work force and there isn’t a good way of replacement coming out of our education community,” said Jerry Custin, president and chief executive officer of the Upper Tampa Bay Chamber of Commerce.

“There are several reasons for that,” Custin said. “There may be the perception that manufacturing is very hard, dirty, arduous work and not necessarily a good career path for their kids.”

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Those perceptions are dated, Custin said. The greasy overalls and assembly line monotony of 20th century manufacturing have given way to computer screens and precision tools. And pay is commensurate with those advanced skills. The average annual wage for manufacturing workers in Florida is $53,284. That’s $10,000 more than the state’s overall average wage.

Changing the dreary image of manufacturing is the second prong of the county’s skills program. CareerSource will be in charge of promoting manufacturing as a career to students, parents, veterans and displaced workers looking to learn new skills.

“There is an education and knowledge gap with parents and students,” said Barton, the county’s economic development chief. “So part of this is telling what a modern manufacturing career looks like. The manufacturing industry understands they can do a better job of selling professions in their industry.”

Perhaps most important to the program’s success will be getting manufacturers involved, especially in an apprenticeship program that provides on-the-job training. As an incentive, the county is earmarking $450,000 of the $1 million seed money to pay part of apprentices’ salaries.

What percentage of an apprentice’s salary the county will pay has not been determined, Barton said. But to take advantage of the incentive, a company would have to pay the apprentice at least the minimum wage for an entry level employee in that industry.

Jurgensmeyer said his company would likely take part in an apprenticeship program if the apprentices were prepared properly in high school. He said other local manufacturers would also take part. And the apprentices will acquire skills that will likely keep them employed for a lifetime.

“The companies that hire them as apprentices, if they’re good in their apprenticeships, are going to hire them (full time). They won’t want to lose them,” he said.

msalinero@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-8303

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