BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County has long struggled with one of the highest unemployment rates in the state.
Lacking appropriate skills, many of the county's workers don't meet the needs of today's more highly skilled workforce.
One big reason: There's nothing in place to help retrain them.
But that's about to change.
The Hernando County school system next month will begin offering the county's first adult technical education courses, filling a void that has recently drawn the attention of everyone from county leaders to business owners to politicians.
The goal is simple.
"Our hope is that this is going to give someone a leg up," said Denise Moen, supervisor of the district's adult and community education programs. "These are desperately needed classes."
The district will initially offer three introductory courses — in engineering technology, culinary arts and information technology. Held on Tuesday evenings at Nature Coast Technical High School, the courses begin Feb. 12 and run through March 19.
It is, as everyone involved admits, a small step.
"We just want to get moving," Moen said. "And get something going."
The three courses were chosen after assessing what kind of skills residents most need and how readily the district could provide them.
"We spent months in those meetings to figure out what would be the best areas," superintendent Bryan Blavatt said, noting that the district already had the instructors and the curriculum. "This is a step forward."
"These were the ones where we thought there was a bona fide need and where we thought we could get started."
The estimated cost to start the program is $20,000, with half coming from the school district and the other half being raised by the county's business development office.
"We've got a bill for $10,000 that we've got to find," Blavatt said.
The school district cannot qualify for grants or any money from the state until it puts a program in place, and that's the main reason for the small initial size of the offerings.
Funding sources are expected to open up as the program becomes better established, allowing it to grow, both in terms of the number of course offerings and the number of students served.
"We will, in the future, be able to sustain this, but it's just getting started," Moen said.
The cost will also be offset by course fees. The courses range from roughly $50 to about $175.
The low cost is by design.
"We believe this is something in reach for a lot of our adults within the county," Moen said.
Career Central will work with people who are interested in the courses but cannot afford them.
For now, those involved with the program are just looking for small successes.
"I think it's going to be an evolutionary process," said Hernando County business development manager Michael McHugh, one of the staunchest advocates for adult technical education in the county. "I'm excited that we're at least going to start some things that will ultimately move the needle in a favorable way to help people gain re-employment."
So far, the three upcoming courses have gotten scant publicity.
There have been a few calls from prospective students to the Hernando County Adult Education Office, but no one has yet to register for the courses, Moen said.
Students who take the short, introductory courses will receive a certificate of completion, but they won't be prepared for any of the industry certification assessments in their respective fields.
Initially, a flier put out on the district's website advertising the courses said the classes would prepare students for certification assessments.
Blavatt said there was an "infusion of the sense of immediacy" to get an adult technical education program started. Partially, he said, it stemmed from his desire to get it done before he retires this summer.
But many people, from McHugh to business owners to local politicians who incorporated it into their stump speeches, had been pushing for this kind of program.
School Board chairman Matt Foreman, who has been a strong advocate of adult technical education, lauded the start.
"You know, just getting the ball rolling after all this time is really nice," Foreman said. "We're lucky because a lot of our community leaders have really given us a lot of help. It's something that we want to look toward expanding, if it makes sense for our community."
McHugh was excited to, in his words, start to "turn this ship."
"We're starting to break through," he said.
Danny Valentine can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1432. Tweet him @HernandoTimes