Sarasota County pushes to train skilled manufacturing workers

SARASOTA COUNTY – Skilled jobs in manufacturing that could boost the middle class are making a comeback across the country, and this region is embarking on a plan to train people for them.

The goal is to close the so-called “skills gap,” in which manufacturers cannot find enough workers who have the know-how to fill high-tech open positions. Talk of the lack of workers who are trained to fill the jobs or even know they exist is occurring nationally.

In this region, educators and manufacturing industry representativesrecently finished a plan for how they will begin to train more workers for the jobs. On Wednesday, their plan gained enthusiastic support from Sarasota County commissioners.

Most of the area’s governments, schools and economic development organizations collaborated on the plan. The first steps will involve reaching out to high schools and high school students.

Yet the technology behind what are being dubbed “middle-skill jobs” like machining and precision welding, which can require a couple of years of post-high school classes and can quickly provide middle-class wages, is often still relatively new.

“You’re talking about a subject I know literally nothing about,” Commissioner Nora Patterson told presenters on Wednesday. Other commissioners echoed that they were more familiar with things like auto manufacturing.

Jennifer Behrens Schmidt, president of the Sarasota Manatee Area Manufacturers Association and owner of Atlantic Mold and Machining Corp., tried to break it down.

“We’ve all seen ‘How It’s Made,’ ” she said, referring to the Science Channel show about manufacturing. “It probably looks crazy complicated from the outside, but it’s really the same industry.”

The plan also calls for paying for on-the-job training, developing appropriate curricula in schools and trying to get more students interested in the industry.

Skilled manufacturing jobs typically have an entry-level wage of about $30,000 a year, but after a couple of years of experience the average wage is $40,000. With more experience, workers can make $50,000 to $80,000 a year, according to those involved with the plan.

The plan’s organizers surveyed 125 employers in the area this year and found 65 percent of them had at least one job opening, with many of those going unfilled for more than three months.

Employers found it hardest to fill jobs for skilled production, with engineering technologists following.

The plan will next be presented to the Sarasota County School Board.

County commissioners were excited by the idea of more manufacturing jobs, which could aid the area’s economic recovery.

Commissioner Christine Robinson, who called the work on the plan “a long-term investment in our community,” said she wondered if having more of those jobs may keep her three children around longer. Younger people in Sarasota County often flee.

“I might have a hope of keeping them here after they graduate from high school,” Robinson said.