The finishing touches are being put on a new precision-machining lab at the Sarasota County Technical Institute. But as important as that training program is to filling a serious shortage of high-skilled manufacturing employees locally, the way it came about and what it says about what happens when organizations work together in our community might be just as significant.
The difficulty that small and mid-size manufacturers have finding skilled machinists had become apparent anecdotally. But that is not enough for the school district to commit its limited resources, and so CareerEdge was approached for a study.
“Part of the impetus behind the CareerEdge study was to provide the school district with the data needed to support the manufacturing training,” said Todd Bowden, executive director of career technical and adult education at SCTI.
It did just that.
CareerEdge, a privately funded workforce-development group that focuses on harnessing a community’s full resources, hired Kempton Research and Planning to conduct a skills-gap study. The results were clear.
When asked about the greatest hiring challenges over next three to five years, 38 percent of manufacturing companies named skilled production workers as the most difficult to find — twice the number who answered engineers and four times the number who said sales and marketing people. And 75 percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that schools are not preparing workers with skills needed in manufacturing.
“The study was definitive that the jobs were here in this community,” Bowden said. He moved swiftly to make a change-order in a building already under construction to accommodate the new machining program’s lab.
CareerEdge — the only organization of its kind in Florida as part of the national Funders Collaborative — helped put together the workgroup that began searching for the best solution. The group included: CareerEdge; Sarasota & Manatee Area Manufacturers Association; SCTI and the Sarasota County School Board; Suncoast Workforce Board; Sarasota County Commission; Gulf Coast Community Foundation; Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce; and Economic Development Corp. of Sarasota County.
“From the very beginning, there was a spirit of cooperation,” said Jeff Maultsby, director of business and economic development for Sarasota County. “It was really a model effort on how things can be done and should be done.”
The local manufacturers’ organization, SAMA, played a crucial role, representing the 600 manufacturers in the two-county area. Jennifer Behrens Schmidt, president of SAMA and of Venice-based Atlantic Mold & Machining Corp., dug in with SCTI to help move things along, including the development of the precision machining training program. She probably logged the most hours on a volunteer basis.
In an unusual move, local manufacturing leaders were instrumental in creating the materials needed by the program. It was an employer-led curriculum. That cut the cost of machinery in half, because the people in the field knew what was, and was not, needed.
The whole effort concluded with the Sarasota County Commission approving $343,500 to buy the machining equipment that will make the SCTI program work. Commissioner Christine Robinson made the initial motion in the process, and she was supported by Commissioner Joe Barbetta and the entire commission. That followed an even larger commitment of $655,000 by the School Board — a difficult decision in tight budget times.
“In less than a year from release of the study, the first student will enroll in the program,” Bowden said. “That is a breakneck pace in my line of work.”
The one-year program can handle 25 students at a time. Before it was even listed as available, it had filled up and had a waiting list.
There is one last key step to be taken: “The true confirmation will be when that first class graduates next year and they get jobs,” Bowden said.
The way so many different facets of the community, both in the public and the private sector, saw the need and pulled together to make this program a quick reality is an encouraging sign for the future.
Contact Mark Huey, president and chief executive officer of the Economic Development Corp. of Sarasota County, at mhuey@ edcsarasotacounty.com. EDC is the public/private partnership leading economic diversification efforts by working with community and regional partners.