ODESSA — PharmaWorks president Peter Buczynsky sees the problem when he looks for new employees: So many of them aren't prepared for his company's high-tech manufacturing jobs.
"There is a definite deficiency in the level of talent we are seeing," said Buczynsky, whose firm won the 2011 Florida Manufacturer of the Year honors from the state Manufacturers Association. "People do not have the practical skills."
He's part of a group of Pasco County business, government and school district leaders who seek to rectify the situation by giving students more opportunities to get those hands-on skills in a real work environment. They're working on creating a career academy magnet school that focuses on getting students industry certifications while also meeting the state's academic graduation requirements.
State Sen. John Legg, chairman of the Senate Education Policy Committee, has made establishing this type of school a priority for his term. He said he will seek state funding as well as community support.
"Some other counties have already embraced industry certification," Legg said. "Pasco is lagging in that area."
Each of Pasco's high schools offers at least one certification program through its career academies in areas such as engineering, information technology, health services and culinary arts. District students earned more than 660 certifications in 2011-12, up from just over 100 two years earlier.
The impetus is growing to get even more students through preparation programs that provide workplace skills and, in some cases, a stronger foundation for college studies. After visiting schools like Manatee County's Braden River High, which recently won four of 23 awards for national model career academies, some Pasco officials have determined that the district must step up its efforts.
"The jobs of the future are going to have more educational and more technical content in them," said John Hagen, Pasco Economic Development Council executive director and chairman of the district's career academies task force. "We have to attack that at all levels. One of the good places to start is in the career academies and the K-12 system."
No one is looking for the certifications in the old model of blue collar manufacturing jobs, intended to serve students with no plans to go to college. Even students who aren't headed to higher education will need more skills and abilities to succeed, Hagen and others stressed.
In fact, Legg said, this year the Senate Education Policy Committee will look closely at ways to align these certifications and career academy standards with the state's academic graduation requirements, to make sure that the students are getting the education they need to succeed — regardless of the path they take to get their diploma.
"We know not all students are the same," he said. "This provides a public school option."
School district officials have begun laying the groundwork for this magnet school concept, which remains in its very early stages.
Career and technical education department director Rob Aguis is heading up the effort, reviewing current offerings and future possibilities along with business leaders such as Hagen. Ideas are wide ranging, from establishing a program at an existing school to opening a new site to incorporating online options.
"We're not looking to cancel any programs," Aguis said. "We're looking to add on" to what the district already is doing.
Whatever emerges would be expected to serve as a model for other programs to build upon and learn from.
Assistant superintendent Ray Gadd said the district is likely to present a proposal sometime soon, so Legg can begin seeking state support concurrent with the upcoming legislative session. "But we don't have one yet."
Legg acknowledged that the idea could take time to come to fruition, particularly if it requires a lot of money. He added that success also will depend upon active support of the private sector.
"I am just hoping we can assist Pasco in injecting some adrenaline into the effort here in our community," Legg said.
Buczynsky, the PharmaWorks president, looked forward to positive results from this and other initiatives to improve the theoretical and practical knowledge of Pasco students, who have the potential to work in his and other industries.
"We can create a spark of interest, and we can teach the practical skills by integrating young people in industry while they're still in school," he said. "We've got an opportunity to really meet this need."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected], (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.