SPRING HILL — After dropping her husband off Wednesday morning, Deb Sims began to cry. Not because he was leaving her alone for several months with four kids to look after. These were tears of joy.
After 19 months without a job, David Sims was heading off to work.
When he was laid off from a construction company, the couple never imagined that the time between paychecks would be so long. But thanks to a specialized training program with the Hernando Employment and Training Association, he's employed again.
Last week, Sims, along with five other HETA graduates, was hired by North American Fabricators, a sister company of Tampa Ships LLC. The men will spend several months working in Houma, La., before returning to Tampa, where they hope to be based long term.
HETA began as an idea between two friends, Ed Tordesillas and JB Bowles, with big ideals: They wanted to make a difference for people who are struggling to find work. There's a lot of talk about what to do; they wanted to take action.
Tordesillas and Bowles partnered with R&M American Marine Products Inc., an affiliate of the German shipbuilding company R&M Ship Tec Group, which had recently opened a manufacturing facility in Hernando County. R&M was seeking to start a school to train joiners for boat parts and provided seed money to get HETA off the ground.
The three-month training program costs $5,000, but most of the students qualify for training vouchers from Career Central, an employment resource center serving Pasco and Hernando counties. Those who do not get a voucher work out a payment plan.
Tordesillas and Bowles hoped to help veterans and other individuals struggling to find work. Initially, they wanted to train former construction workers to build ships. They would begin with the marine joiner training and branch out to support other companies in the region.
But the need for marine joiners and ship builders varies from contract to contract, and by last June, the national economy, the gulf oil spill and competition from other shipbuilders around the world led the local R&M division to close its Brooksville manufacturing facility.
Bowles, who served as local manger for R&M, said the Brooksville company was losing money and decided to "mothball" the operation for the time being, with the aim of reopening at a future time.
By September, HETA had graduated five classes of marine joiners for a total of 66 students who have completed all of the training. Since graduating, 44 have become employed, 22 specifically in the shipbuilding industry, according to HETA officials.
"Sixty-seven percent of our graduates have told us they are employed," said Tordesillas, HETA president.
Once booming with growth and construction, Hernando County continues to struggle with one of the highest unemployment rates in the state, currently 15 percent.
While the need for marine joiners hasn't been as strong as school officials had hoped, things seem to be picking up.
"We've had eight (workers) hired this week," said Tordesillas.
And when the need for marine joiners arises, it's usually for a time-sensitive contract, and companies are looking to fill positions quickly.
Should HETA be training individuals who might have to leave the region for work?
"If the jobs aren't here, we need to go where they are," said Tordesillas. "These guys send money back home and are able to support their families."
At the same time, HETA has branched out. HETA officials recently opened a site in Tampa at 9150 Florida Mining Way. Last summer, they managed the Tampa Bay Workforce Alliance Summer Youth Program.
This fall, they plan to offer four new courses: automotive technician training, executive secretary training, structural ship welding training and precision machining training.
Tordesillas acknowledges that some students have been frustrated by the lack of immediate job opportunities. He is hopeful that HETA will be able to support all of its graduates in finding suitable employment.
While a new contract needing several dozen marine joiners would be a dream come true, in this economy, he'll take what he can get.
Each secured job means a world of difference to that individual, and frequently to a family as well.
"Now, we're not going to be homeless," said Deb Sims.
Shary Lyssy Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.