BROOKSVILLE — Until a couple of weeks ago, 28-year-old Aaron Field was an out-of-work sinkhole-repair laborer.
A single dad with two young kids, he doesn't have a college education. He can't afford to go back to school. Or go into debt. Many jobs seem out of reach.
"It's hard in this day to get any job making more than $10 an hour with just a high school diploma," Field said.
Then he found it — his "blessing."
Searching Craigslist, he saw an ad for an intensive, two-week mobile training program in Brooksville that would teach him welding, a skill many employers are struggling to find.
The best part: Now that he has finished, he's guaranteed a job. One that starts at $13 or $14 an hour.
"I am grateful for it," Field said. "It's another steppingstone, another opportunity for me to further my career."
Friday was graduation day for him and nine others. All are in line for welding jobs with Hernando County companies. All were previously unemployed.
The mobile skills training program, known as TechPoint, was established by the nonprofit Florida Manufacturing Extension Partnership.
Across Florida, there are a lot of jobs in manufacturing and not enough workers with the skills to fill them. The program aims to close that gap, said Ted Astolfi, deputy director of the partnership.
The organization finds job openings and secures hiring commitments from companies. It then finds and screens people. Employers interview the candidates, offering jobs to the ones they like — assuming they finish the program.
"We don't just train to train," Astolfi said. "We train for jobs."
For two weeks, the future employees take an intensive skills training class in a mobile classroom. In this case, the classroom — a converted semitrailer filled with computers, desks and other equipment — was parked outside Alumi-Guard in the industrial park at Brooksville-Tampa Bay Regional Airport. The company, along with two others, has committed to hire the 10 students.
"I think it's fantastic," said 30-year-old Leslie "Bubba" Eicher, who is in the program.
Eicher, a Brooksville resident, has 15 years of experience in a different kind of welding, but hadn't been able to secure a high-paying job.
"It gives everybody, even an average person that doesn't have any welding experience, an opportunity to broaden his horizons," he said.
The program, made possible by a $4.9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor, has been running for about nine months and has trained about 70 people in Florida.
Businesses in 23 counties — including all of the Tampa Bay area — are eligible for the program. Nationwide, there are roughly 500,000 open jobs in manufacturing, Astolfi said. Tampa Bay businesses have about 500 openings.
Although many businesses are in need of skilled workers, he says identifying businesses and telling them about the program is difficult.
The program can help businesses save a lot of money, shortening the time it takes workers to become productive and eliminating the need to train them using company time and resources. Also, people who go through the program tend to have lower turnover; the six-month retention rate is 91 percent.
Alumi-Guard, which manufactures fencing, recently added a second shift and has been trying to add welders for the past six months, said Chip Howison, the company's chief operating officer. The company went through temporary employment agencies, but quickly exhausted the supply of qualified candidates.
"We found a couple," Howison said, "but not what we needed."
Reporter Danny Valentine can be reached (352) 848-1432 or [email protected] On Twitter: @HernandoTimes.