Matching Employer’s Needs with Workers Skills

LAKEWOOD RANCH – More than two-thirds of the region’s manufacturers say a major gap exists between the skills they need and those most area job applicants possess, according to a new study by CareerEdge Funders Collaborative.

CareerEdge, a nonprofit agency that is working to bridge that skills gap, surveyed more than 100 manufacturers and held focus groups to refine the results.

Working with manufacturing employers, school systems and governments in Sarasota and Manatee counties, CareerEdge wants schools to teach more usable skills. At the same time, the group hopes area manufacturers will commit to hiring graduates from improved educational programs.

The survey concluded that classes in which students learn to weld and run digitally controlled milling machines are critically needed, said Mireya Eavey, CareerEdge’s executive director.

Next week, Eavey hopes to take commitments from manufacturers to hire apprentices from Sarasota County Technical Institute classes to a Sarasota County Commission meeting.

“They want to see the number of individuals who will be hired,” Eavey said.

The skills gap is hardly a local issue, but it is more of a problem in this region because no single industry dominates the area. Instead, a large number of small, specialized operations discourages the development of centralized training programs, CareerEdge found.

Another problem, and one more addressable, is that high school graduates seem to lack even the most basic math skills, according to one panelist at a CareerEdge presentation of the survey results in Lakewood Ranch.

“We are constantly looking for people,” said Michael Havey, a manager at Teakdecking Systems, based in Manatee County.

His company, which employs 125 people at an average wage of $15 an hour, makes and installs custom-fitted teak decks for cruise ships and yachts.

Many of his workers earn considerable overtime, and traveling installers can make $50,000 to $75,000 annually, he said.

As part of its job interview, the company asks applicants to take what he describes as a fifth-grade math test involving simple geometry, addition, subtraction, multiplication and percentages.

Havey estimates that only one out of 25 job applicants gets all the problems correct.

Marine trim carpenters, welders, machinists, lab technicians, operators of lathes and other machines, assemblers and quality-control technicians were listed as the skilled positions employers most desire.

Representatives of Manatee Technical Institute and SCTI said they are eager to help.

“Our question is, will you hire the new folks?” Dr. Todd Bowden, director of SCTI, asked. “The last thing I want to do is put out 30 machinists a year — and find out the market is for 15.”

In a new building now being completed at SCTI, Bowden is proposing spending about $1 million over the next five years to establish a course in digital machining and milling. If funded, he could graduate a class of entry-level machinists by the fall of 2014, he said.

“And then, if you had a machine shop, you certainly would utilize it for a wide range of other training,” he added. “You could have a very robust continuing workforce training for those already in manufacturing.”