Saturday, May 26, 2018
Business

Tech training can create a stronger workforce — and economy

BROOKSVILLE

As a comprehensive high school, Nature Coast Technical is a hybrid of sorts. With a host of technology to support programs in culinary arts, health science, commercial arts and automotive repair, Nature Coast aims to give some students a jump start on their job search, while others prepare to pursue college degrees. And as a sports powerhouse with a drama department and theater, the $41.3 million campus that opened in 2003 offers a traditional high school experience.

Now plans are under way to make the school a hub of technical and vocational training for adults.

District officials, with help from Hernando County's business development office, have agreed to seek funding for adult education programs that would operate at Nature Coast in the afternoons, evenings and during the summer. Pasco-Hernando Community College is also involved in the effort.

The plan is a top priority for Mike McHugh, manager of business development for a county with one of the highest unemployment rates in the state. Job seekers in their 20s, 30s and beyond are desperate to learn new skills that will make them employable in today's labor market, McHugh said, noting that the local demand for skilled workers is growing as the Hernando County Airport Industrial Park, just south of Nature Coast, continues to expand.

The current workforce by and large doesn't have the skills for those jobs, and Nature Coast has millions of dollars worth of specialized equipment that could be put to good use training adults, McHugh said.

"When you look at the business demands and the jobs being created, there's a gap there," he said. "A bridge is what we need, and Nature Coast is going to be that bridge."

"It's definitely an idea whose time has come," said county Commissioner John Druzbick, who was chairman of the Hernando School Board when voters approved a half-cent sales tax to pay for Nature Coast's construction.

At that time, Druzbick recalled, the school was envisioned as a high school/college hybrid, offering technical and vocational programs for grades 9 to 12 and beyond through a partnership with PHCC. The college later decided not to be involved, and Nature Coast opened as a magnet school.

Although the school's programs have proved popular, it isn't the pure vo-tech school that many envisioned a decade and a half ago.

Citrus County has Withlacoochee Technical Institute in Inverness, and Pasco has Marchman Technical Education Center in Port Richey, where adult enrollment is on the rise. Hernando residents attend both, and some even drive to Pinellas County's technical education centers.

Through the boom years and into the Great Recession, business owners have noted the need for a similar facility in Hernando. In a recent survey of 422 adults in the county, 70 percent said they have interest in a local training program that would enhance their skills, and 58 percent said a technical school would be an attractive option.

"The school system wants to assist in any way, but by the same token we want to have a program we can put together that's feasible," superintendent Bryan Blavatt said.

A critical key to feasibility is money. After years of cuts to education funding, the district can barely maintain its own programs, much less paying to launch a new program. So the district has agreed to explore funding opportunities through the state Department of Education and federal grants to get the idea off the ground in the form of three or four program offerings.

Some of the potential "low-hanging fruit" involves manufacturing with a focus on precision machining, hybrid and electric vehicle technology, electronic and LED technology, and medical arts. Nature Coast has infrastructure that could be used for all of those, McHugh said, but the hope is that outside funding will pay for more equipment — a potentially sweet part of the deal for the school district. The courses would be fee-based, generating revenue to put back into the program.

The idea is welcome news to Jesse Sims, who supported the sales tax campaign as president of Sims Machine and Controls Inc. Sims later sold his company to Composite Motors Inc., where he now works in sales.

The company requires a workforce trained in an array of specialties to build motors used in surgical devices and military equipment. Precision machining, circuitry work, soldering, and tool and die making are all part of the process.

"We need mechanically inclined, hands-on technicians," Sims said. "We don't need everybody to have a bachelor's or master's (degree). There are a lot of (people) out there looking for jobs, and we can't hire them. They just don't have the skills. We want to help the community and put people to work."

Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or [email protected]

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