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Thursday, Oct 02, 2014

St. Pete College to train workers for LED manufacturer


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ST. PETERSBURG - A St. Petersburg College program starting this fall will put unemployed workers on the factory floor of a cutting-edge LED technology company with plans for major growth.

The program may also land many of the workers a job at LumaStream, which is moving its Canadian manufacturing operations to Midtown St. Petersburg and plans to hire several hundred people in coming years.

The college's board of trustees this week approved an agreement with LumaStream to start a training program at the company's new manufacturing center at the corner of 22nd Street and First Avenue South.

Successful students would get preference for jobs, which could pay anywhere from $30,000 for an entry-level machinist to $100,000 for management roles, LumaStream president and CEO Eric Higgs said.

The project is the first being paid for by a $15-million federal grant aimed at training workers in advanced manufacturing at 12 Florida colleges.

The program will offer much-needed training for a workforce that lacks the necessary skills to get jobs with the the types of manufacturing and technology companies the city hopes to bring here, economic development officials said.

St. Petersburg is poised to become a major center for technology companies such as his, Higgs said.

"We really have an opportunity to become a technology hub - one of the most successful technology hubs in the country, I believe," he said.

LumaStream seemed like a perfect fit for the U.S. Department of Labor grant that St. Petersburg College has been tasked with overseeing across the state, college officials said.

Under the agreement, the college will pay $5,000 a month over the next two years to use space in LumaStream's 15,000-square-foot building, which is currently being renovated.

The company anticipates building a new 50,000-square-foot factory a few years down the road to accommodate its projected growth, Higgs said.

The college expects the training program and several more under development with other technology and manufacturing companies to yield 224 jobs in Pinellas County and prepare many more for future work, said Gary Graham, the college's workforce outreach coordinator.

"We're going to be sure that we send them our strongest people we can with the skills they need because we want the companies to have faith in us and our program, and we want the students who complete the program to be successful," said Graham.

"Our definition of successful is they're back in the workforce and they have a job."

Assessment for the first round of students will begin in July, with coursework starting in September.

Although many of the 1,500 manufacturers in Pinellas County are small businesses with fewer than 10 people, Pinellas County ranks second in the state for total jobs in the manufacturing sector.

Economic development leaders envision LumaStream becoming an anchor for more advanced manufacturing companies in Midtown, where St. Petersburg College is building a new $12-million, 45,000-square-foot campus.

St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership head Peter Betzer says this type of hands-on training with actual equipment will lead technology companies such as SRI or Draper Labs to invest more locally and expand.

"I really see this as enabling a lot of people to get jobs, and yes, it will eventually attract others," said Betzer, who helped put the LumaStream program together.

The nonprofit Downtown Partnership has invested $25,000 in LumaStream, which Betzer said is on the fast track to becoming a major player in the energy industry.

Higgs told college officials Tuesday his business is riding a wave of demand for energy-efficient LED lighting as energy costs climb and traditional light bulbs are phased out.

The company doesn't actually make LED bulbs but, rather, digital controllers that give users precise command over light levels throughout entire buildings.

Its patented technology has been used to light the front columns of the St. Petersburg Museum of Fine Arts, the top of the Comcast tower in Philadelphia, luxury suites at Tropicana Field, and its list of clients continues to grow, Higgs said.

jboatwright@tampatrib.com

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