Apprentice program advances amid Hernando commission funding scrutiny

County officials are reluctant to keep funding a tech program teaching employable skills.
Published August 2 2017
Updated August 2 2017

BROOKSVILLE — Casual gamblers may skitter their dice onto the felt with nary a thought to the engineering skills needed to construct those perfect little cubes.

But Kody Nigro, a 16-year-old wanna-be machine technician, can tick them off: angles precisely measured, depressions drilled evenly, edges ground to a match and an end product polished to a shine. No gambles taken.

Nearby, 17-year-old Raymond Moats, another engineering technician in the making, toiled over a 3-D printer in its troubleshooting stage. Having assembled the computer-driven machine from its myriad parts, tweaked its temperature controls and added a climate-control encasement of his own devising, Moats finally declared, "Aha."

The teens are among a quartet of testing-the-waters manufacturing technicians who recently completed a three-week summer manufacturing boot camp at the AMskills Training Center in the Airport Industrial Park — the Hernando portion of the American Manufacturing Skills Initiative.

The initiative, launched in 2015 in Hernando, Pasco and Pinellas counties, is now placing its initial group of graduates with local manufacturers. All completed 400 hours of pre-apprentice skills instruction while continuing to finish their high school educations. They have to be 18 to work in a U.S. manufacturing environment.

But there is scrutiny of the program from Hernando County commissioners, who question the cost and wonder why the Hernando School Board isn't picking up the tab.

"There's not enough return for investment,'' Commissioner Steve Champion said in June.

The effort is based on a German-style certificate program recognized by manufacturers around the world, according to AMskills executive director Tom Mudano. In adjusting the European model to meet U.S. and even local manufacturing needs, the Hernando effort responded to a skills-gap analysis conducted among the county's manufacturers.

"What we're focusing on are the three tracks most needed: computer numerically controlled machining, mechatronics and industrial maintenance." Mudano said.

• • •

Justyn Bowes of Spring Hill, one of the first certificate earners in mechatronics, now is a full-time fabrication technician at Accuform, a custom sign and facilities identification manufacturer in the Airport Industrial Park. Currently, Bowes is building a mammoth aluminum sign frame with electrical components.

At AMskills, he said, "I did soldering projects that helped with (this) electrical work. We built certificate frames that gave me experience on this frame-building part, the angles and materials."

For the first few months, pre-apprentice Bowes worked under an Accuform mentor, filling 200 hours of an AMskills-employer partnership. "Then I was on my own, figuring out things," Bowes said, "but somebody helping when I needed it. I'm considered an apprentice now."

The 19-year-old Nature Coast High School grad chose the AMskills career route because it allowed him to stay close to family and get a job locally.

Among newcomers, Nigro, a Weeki Wachee High junior, committed to AMskills after his introduction at boot camp.

"It's all hands-on — that's what I like about it," he said.

Moats, a homeschooled high school graduate and a student at Pasco-Hernando State College, may pursue AMskills' industrial maintenance program. His appetite for the career path took hold in the AMskills shop, where he helped tear down and rebuild a defunct commercial surface grinder the size of a small car.

"We had to figure things out for ourselves," he said of a student team. Gesturing to the machine, Moats announced, "It works."

Learning teamwork is one of the outcomes of the AMskills initiative, Mudano pointed out. Others are reliability, dependability and accountability. They experience the work environment: punching a time clock, taking orders, accepting advice.

• • •

With $1.1 million in seed money, the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity launched AMskills as an economy booster. The state Department of Education gave $300,000. Each of the counties involved contributed $200,000 for two years.

With results just coming in — two Hernando grads have been placed, four have completed interviews — Mudano recognizes some in the community question a seemingly stingy outcome to date.

"We're only 11/2 years in," he said. "What manufacturer is generating momentum in 11/2 years?"

On Aug. 10, AMskills will launch courses for adults and military veterans. Since these adults are enrolled full time, they'll complete training and be ready for paid employment in three months.

Yet the AMskills program faces funding issues from the County Commission, which in late June debated its cost effectiveness. Commissioners won't finalize the county budget until September.

Mudano hoped to secure $200,000 in the county's 2017-18 budget and another $200,000 for the next year. Champion voiced concern that spending that sum for a program that only produced had eight trained workers didn't seem like a wise expenditure.

Commissioner John Allocco said he understood that the students were actually overtrained for the jobs currently available.

Allocco also voiced concern that expecting industries to pick up a portion of the cost for the training, which is the European model, "won't be a sustainable model."

Champion also wanted to know why it was the county and not the Hernando School Board that was on the hook for paying for the program.

Valerie Pianta, the county's economic development manager, said that industries the county tries to lure often ask where they would get their current and future work forces.

She noted that the county is currently working to lure a company from Germany, which is familiar with the apprenticeship process. Having that available "is an important piece of the puzzle," she said.

If Hernando commissioners fail to continue funding, Mudano said, "We'll pull out of the site." Then he added, "unless we can get others to step up."

He pointed out that most of Hernando County's manufacturers are small and family-owned enterprises that can't afford large financial outlays even if AMskills would likely benefit them in the long run.

Times staff writer Barbara Behrendt contributed to this report. Contact Beth Gray at graybethn@earthlink.net.

 
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