Organization gives employers and workers an edge

BRADENTON – When Mireya Eavey was with Sarasota County’s Economic Development Corp. a few years ago, employers looking to move here would typically ask if the region had enough of the skilled workers they would need.



Created: early 2010

Executive director: Mireya Eavey

Funding: John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Gulf Coast Community Foundation, National Fund for Workplace Solutions, and others.

Local employer partners: Sarasota Memorial and Manatee Memorial hospitals, Blake Medical Center, Pines of Sarasota, among and others.

2011/2012 budget: $1.3 million

Nine out of 10 times, Eavey says, the answer was no.

Now, though, thanks to new-age work force collaborative called CareerEdge, Eavey is at the forefront of a push to enhance workers’ skills with training and to meet employers’ labor needs.

“We’re helping employers find skilled employees, often from their own ranks, so they can run more efficiently and make more money,” said Eavey, the group’s executive director.

“And we’re employee-focused as well, we’re working on career laddering and wage increases,” Eavey said. “The difference is we’re looking at both supply and demand.”

CareerEdge’s mission is galvanizing amid unusually high regional unemployment that has failed to wane since the end of the Great Recession in 2009 or show signs of dramatic improvement on the horizon.

When the group began gelling in late 2009, for example, unemployment in Sarasota and Manatee counties stood at a depressing 12.5 percent.

In August, the most recent month for which figures are available, the same area’s jobless rate was an average 11.1 percent.

Even more pernicious, state economists predict Florida’s unemployment rate on a seasonally adjusted basis will remain stagnant at current levels, around 10.6 percent, through the end of 2012.

Added to that, many economists believe Florida’s jobless rate will not return to “normal” levels — between 5 percent and 6 percent unemployment — until 2019, and some forecast the state will not reach that level again until 2022.

To counter the malaise and make inroads into unemployment and so-called “underemployment,” in which workers take part-time jobs or work beneath their skill set to bring in some income, CareerEdge has amassed an impressive list of partners and contributors.

For its part, the organization provides multi-year grants to employers to train workers or enhance skills.

Public-sector partners in the effort include Sarasota County, the City of Bradenton and the Central Community Redevelopment Agency.

Private funders include Bank of America and Microsoft Corp., to name just two.

Just as significant is the involvement of civic groups and charities such as the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the National Fund for Workforce Solutions, the United Way, the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce, the Jewish Family and Children’s Services of Sarasota-Manatee and the Suncoast Workforce Board.

The National Fund for Workforce Solutions, a private, $30 million initiative, designated CareerEdge as one of only 31 groups nationwide to receive its funding and support.

CareerEdge has differentiated itself, too, by focusing on a handful of sectors that traditionally offer higher-wage jobs and have had solid growth.

For now, the group intends to limit its efforts to health care, manufacturing, transportation and technology.

In the health care arena, a sector where pending chronic nursing shortages are likely to dovetail with an ever-aging population, CareerEdge is working with Sarasota Memorial Hospital, Blake Medical Center, Manatee Memorial Hospital, the Pines of Sarasota and others.

At Sarasota Memorial, CareerEdge is coordinating English language and GED preparation classes to help about 30 lower-wage hospitality employees move up.

“We love the idea of taking good performing employees and guiding them to longer-term goals,” said Susan Evans, the hospital’s hospitality services supervisor.

But CareerEdge, Evans said, pledged to help the hospital with about $53,000 a year only if a long-range, comprehensive plan were developed.

“CareerEdge told us they wanted a big plan to bring about real change in people’s lives,” Evans said. “They didn’t want people just to make $1 or $2 more an hour.”

What has differentiated CareerEdge, as well, is that it requires employers to contribute substantial money, in addition to time and effort, into the programs developed. Moreover, CareerEdge’s funding works on a sliding scale, in which employers agree to kick in more and more money as time goes on.

“Employers have to have some skin the game,” Eavey said. “They have to answer questions on a continual basis about their programs and show us quantifiable results and how our funding will impact them.”

The idea, Eavey says, is entry-level workers will receive new skills and move up, creating jobs for new entry-level workers. Employers, in turn, will retain skilled labor and build loyalty.

Eavey acknowledges the idea for CareerEdge received some pushback when the group was officially launched in early 2010, after receiving a $1 million grant from the Knight Foundation.

“People said, ‘Why do we need another workforce group?'” said Eavey, who joined in May 2010. “But we’re not about numbers — we’re more about fixing a system and making solutions sustainable.”

To fix flaws in the system, CareerEdge has raised about $3.9 million to date, much of it from matching grants and donations. The group’s budget for the 2011/2012 fiscal year is $1.3 million, Eavey said.

In its second year, Eavey said CareerEdge will focus more on manufacturing — it is already working with companies like window maker PGT Inc. and drinkware maker Tervis Tumbler — by providing computer training and “digital literacy” classes, as more and more factory jobs require technical skills.

To that end, CareerEdge has linked with the Sarasota County Technical Institute to train additional welders and machinists with high-tech knowledge, Eavey said.

It also plans to establish or cement relationships with Barry’s Plastics, Gold Coast Distribution, METI, Sun Hydraulics, Aso, Octex Corp., and other companies operating here.

That push comes as Sarasota County’s Economic Development Agency predicts a need for 2,500 new manufacturing jobs in the county by 2016.

Eavey hopes to inject CareerEdge into public policy, too, to better understand how public money is spent, and why, as it relates to work-force matters.

To handle it all, CareerEdge itself plans to hire a new coordinator. That position will bring CareerEdge’s full-time staff to three.

Within five years, Eavey hopes to rid area employers — or companies considering moving here — of the perception that Sarasota and Manatee counties do not have enough skilled workers.