They enter a mobile unit parked outside a manufacturing plant every day, perhaps 12 to 14 in a group. Some are single moms or dads; some may have criminal records; all are desperate for a job.
Two weeks later, after immersing in daylong sessions about blueprints and metrology and practicing on milling machines, the graduates emerge with the promise to start work immediately.
Rod Rodrigue and his entourage at Time Wise Management Systems have plenty of mementos touting the success of their outside-the-job training program, dubbed MOST, or Mobile Outreach Skills Training.
A video of a December jobs summit in Washington, D.C., shows Rodrigue bragging to U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis that 92 percent of trainees are placed in manufacturing jobs. Photos show Florida Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp and other state dignitaries touring one of the mobile units in Tallahassee. Pamphlets give testimonials from big manufacturers like General Dynamics and small ones like Control Logistics Inc.
There's just one thing the crew from Time Wise doesn't have in its toolbox: any more federal stimulus funds or grants to stay in Florida.
A couple more training classes are left in Collier County and in Ormond Beach.
"And then that's it," said Time Wise director of grants Claudia Follett. "We'll finish by early September. We're out of money."
Short of intervention by Gov. Charlie Crist's office, Time Wise says the last mobile unit will pull out of Florida and head somewhere like Mississippi where it expects a better reception. And more stimulus money.
The MOST program has been used in a smattering of counties around Florida — though not specifically in the Tampa Bay area — funded by an $850,000 U.S. Department of Labor grant and job-stimulus support from regional work force boards.
Rodrigue says the program is caught in a bureaucratic tangle. Department of Commerce guidelines and shifting funding formulas are making it difficult for Florida to fund alternative job training programs, he said. Rather, the emphasis is on vocational career schools.
Follett said some of Florida's 24 work force boards overseen by Workforce Florida are stricter than others in interpreting Department of Commerce guidelines to spend training money.
"You've got in Florida 24 different interpretations of the same guidelines," she said.
Workforce Florida spokeswoman Adriane Grant acknowledged each work force board has "a lot of latitude" in investing public dollars into training. "That doesn't mean they can spend it on anything," she said. "There are some guidelines. … All training has to be tied to targeted occupations where we know there is going to be (job) demand."
Short of the work force boards shifting around training money, Follett said the only other way the program will continue is if Crist intervenes. But that appears unlikely.
Sterling Ivey, a spokesman for Crist, said that neither the governor's office, the Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation nor the Florida stimulus czar appointed by the governor, Don Winstead, are familiar with specifics about the MOST program. He referred questions back to Workforce Florida.
Rodrigue said he doesn't want to criticize anyone. He believes Florida's work force boards are trying hard to train some of the state's 1 million-plus jobless. But he also thinks it's short-sighted for a state combatting double-digit unemployment to reject a program that can put entrenched unemployed to work in a couple of weeks.
"The whole purpose is to get people into jobs and get them into jobs quickly," he said. "Here, they immediately become part of the economic stimulus."
Mobile training units
Based in Maine, Time Wise brought its mobile training units to Florida a couple of years ago in a pilot program through the Florida Manufacturing Extension Partnership, a nonprofit agency set up by the Department of Commerce to support manufacturing.
The relationship between the Florida MEP and Time Wise was already close: Time Wise was previously hired to manage the MEP under a separate contract, and Rodrigue acts as the extension partnership's executive director.
Ted Astolfi, senior manager of partnership for the MEP, said he doesn't see any problem with the close connection and the partnership's promotion of the mobile training program.
"I wouldn't call it a conflict of interest," he said. "We were lucky enough to learn about the MOST program (through Time Wise) and bring it to Florida. … It's been an innovative way to train people on demand. Manufacturers love it."
Thousands of workers
The interior of one of the company's mobile units looks like a classroom on wheels. A dozen or so computer portals face an instructor; behind them a pair of machines allows practice milling and turning.
The first week of each session is largely classroom lectures: learning shop math, metrology, basic computer-aided design, blueprints. The second week is hands-on, with each class customized to learn about specific processes used by the company hiring them so they can hit the ground running.
"The instructors evolve during the classes," said Larry Meadows, a project manager with Florida MEP. Starting out as teachers, they become facilitators and, eventually, supervisors.
Time Wise follows its graduates into the manufacturing plant, watching their progress up to their six-month anniversary.
Since founding Time Wise a dozen years ago, Rodrigue said he has placed thousands of workers. More than 100 have been trained in Florida so far. Its typical students are often viewed by outsiders as those hardest to employ. Many have limited education and lack money to go back to school. One trainee group was made up entirely of homeless.
"A lot of these people do not have the ability to spend two years in a community college," he said. "They'll say, 'I've got three babies at home and work at McDonald's' or 'I drive a cab at night.' "
Every batch of trainees is different, as the framed group photos decorating the inside of a mobile unit attest. Each class chooses its own nickname: "The Crazy Cutters," "The Metal Cartel," "The Elite Eight." One group trained for Piper Aircraft called itself "Plane Smart." Another that endured a two-week training session during a cold February up North opted for "The Frozen Chosen."
The government-funded cost per trainee: about $6,900.
"Three to four months of unemployment benefits pay for this program. The payback is quick," Rodrigue said.
And, he insists, the manufacturing jobs are out there. Smaller and startup companies aren't offshoring; they're looking for local workers and paying anywhere from $8 to $14 an hour for entry-level positions.
"Our problem has not been in finding the jobs; it's in finding the finances to put people back to work," Rodrigue said.
"Right now, these people are unprepared. They don't have the skill sets to do these kinds of jobs. … We have something that's worked really well the past three years and we'll keep fighting the system, if you will."
Jeff Harrington can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8242. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jeffmharrington.