BROOKSVILLE — Within the last month, Jeff Roth has landed contracts with two companies that will bring his business, Chasco Machine and Manufacturing, more than $8.4 million over the next few years.
One problem: Roth is beside himself figuring out how he is going to find enough skilled workers to make the airplane and military parts he's committed to provide.
In the past, he has been so desperate to fill openings that pay between $16 and $23 an hour that he has run ads in trade magazines. Roth's recent invitation to potential employees up North included a picture of a palm tree and an offer to pay employees' first three years of property taxes.
There were no takers.
Roth, who turned a trade school education in precision machining into a multimillion-dollar business, is among the strongest advocates for Hernando County to begin growing its own skilled workers. Without them, he says, attracting new businesses and expanding existing ones is going to be tough.
"It starts with a good workforce,'' Roth said. "You've got to have the workforce first before you can get businesses to move in here.''
That's what Michael McHugh, the county's business development manager, has been telling people for some time.
And he is not alone. When the County Commission conducted an economic development workshop with the business community last November, an adult technical education center was the top priority identified.
But McHugh says he has been frustrated.
After months of meetings with officials from the school district and Pasco-Hernando Community College, which also supports the idea and is interested in coordinating efforts, no proposal has yet to be pitched to the Florida Department of Education, though McHugh says he senses local school officials have begun to understand the need.
With Hernando County's unemployment rate for July at 11.3 percent, the highest in the Tampa Bay area, and a collapsed housing market, McHugh argues that technical training is essential. With so many people out of work in the construction industry, new technical skills would help get people back to work and enable the county to diversify its economic base.
Pasco and Citrus counties have adult technical schools, and Hernando can seek funding from the same source through the Department of Education, McHugh said. He said he is ready to help make a strong pitch to the state and the local legislative delegation once the school district completes a plan.
"We've got to have something to show them,'' he said.
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Last November, McHugh brought a resolution to the School Board. He said he was simply asking for the board to start the process to put together a plan.
The program could be housed at Nature Coast Technical High School, so no new facility would be needed. Classes could be in the afternoons, evenings and on weekends, when the school wasn't otherwise in use. Programs could be geared to local needs or unique skills not taught elsewhere in the region.
Even if it started slow, with just four classes with 10 students each, McHugh said, "that's still 40 better than we are today.''
It would mean Hernando residents seeking a technical education wouldn't have to leave the county for training in Citrus, Pasco or Pinellas counties, as they must do now.
McHugh said sending local students away "just burns me because these people are in trouble. They need help, and we just aren't there.''
In a recent meeting with the Tampa Bay Times, he expressed his continued desire to push the program, despite frustrations getting in started.
"It has been an arduous process to get our school system engaged in thinking about it ,'' McHugh said. "I think there is trepidation as any organization would have facing budget cuts. Why are we doing something new when we're struggling with what we've got?''
But McHugh said the proposal is more about better utilizing the facilities the county already has. And, he said, it's needed.
Unlike the construction industry, which offers many low-skill trades, "the game now is for skilled workers,'' he said, to fill higher-paying jobs that require higher qualifications.
For McHugh, whose job it is to lure new business and industry to the community, and help existing ones grow, the lack of skilled workers and a technical school is a missing tool in his tool box.
Initial discussions about the types of programs that could be offered in a vocational technical program have centered around what local workforce board statistics show as needs. But an effort would be made, McHugh said, to not duplicate programs at nearby schools such as the Marchman Technical Education Center in Pasco County and Withlacoochee Technical Institute in Citrus County.
Programs that have been considered include auto mechanics for hybrid vehicles, precision machining, industrial machine maintenance and a variety of computer science and medical arts offerings.
In response to concerns that the school district cannot afford to take on anything new, McHugh notes there is a separate pot of money available through the state Department of Education for adult programs. And Hernando County schools are not getting many of those dollars now.
According to the DOE website, Hernando has been appropriated $366,658 for 2012-13, money used for the district's General Educational Development program.
Citrus County will receive $2.7 million for its program at Withlacoochee Technical Institute. Pasco will receive $2.35 million for Marchman.
McHugh said now is the time for Hernando to strike.
"I just think it's important. I think it is a great opportunity. I think Hernando can make a very effective argument with the state'' for the workforce dollars, McHugh said.
"I just believe we ought to try.''
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Superintendent Bryan Blavatt says he understands how important the issue is to the community.
"There's obviously a void here," he said. "There are a lot of people out there who are not employed. There are a lot of problems in matching up new industry and companies and the workplace when we don't have as many qualified people as we should have."
Blavatt said the school district is working to fill the void, although he acknowledged it has not been his top priority.
His said his staff is working on an application for workforce development funds, the reoccurring money that would drive the program, and that the proposal should be done by October, with the hope of adults being able to enroll in the program by the end of the school year.
"I feel confident that we should have a good strong proposal that is really aligned to what we have with data," he said.
School Board Vice Chairman Matt Foreman said that Blavatt's timeline may be a bit optimistic, though he would welcome it.
"It kind of is in the superintendent's hands," Foreman said. "I know it's being worked on."
The school district has been working on the issue for about a year and a half, and Blavatt said one of the advantages is that a program would keep Hernando students close to home. But he said he has concerns about where all of the resources will come from. While the district would provide a location and existing equipment, it can't afford to provide additional resources or staff time.
"If it can't be done through the workforce (funds), grants and tuition, it can't be done," he said.
Foreman believes the program could start small, targeting a few professions. And the workforce money should be enough for a modest start-up, he said.
The School Board should have a workshop to discuss the application before taking it to a formal vote, he said.
"If we don't buy in, it doesn't happen," he said. "Quite frankly, I don't know what the objection would be."
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Hernando school officials would not regret getting into the adult technical training business, even with the initial challenges, said Shelia Bryan, principal at Marchman Technical in Pasco.
"It took a tremendous amount of work. When you're in a K-12 world, trying to blaze a new trail, it's a tremendous amount of work,'' Bryan said.
Those on the inside of adult technical education understand it, she said; those on the outside, including other educators in the school district, may not.
Bryan said Marchman is fortunate because there is support from the district leadership and from key people on staff and understanding of the program's significance.
"In the K-12 world, we serve the children with their many needs. If I'm helping their parents, then we've raised up that whole family. If I'm training their parent to get a better job or a job, then you're helping the K-12 world, too,'' she said. "I've just seen so many positives.''
Denise Willis, director of the Withlacoochee Technical Institute, points to positive statistics regarding her programs.
In 2011, 72 percent of the students in the institute's air conditioning technology course found jobs. For massage therapists, the placement rate was 86 percent. In addition, 89 percent of the welding students, 94 percent of the licensed practical nursing students and 100 percent of the corrections officers landed in jobs.
"We're very supported by our business community,'' Willis said, noting that business representatives on the school's advisory boards make sure the program is up to date.
"All the effort is worth it," Willis said. "There is nothing better than seeing a student turn their life around. They get a certificate and get a job. We really do change a person's life around.''
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Citrus business people have relied on the Withlacoochee programs to keep their workforce up to speed on the skills they need, even as those skills are constantly changing, said Kevin Cunningham, president-elect of the Citrus County Economic Development Council.
"The success that I've seen is when a local business needs employee training in a new field,'' said Cunningham, who also previously served on the Citrus County School Board.
"In this technology-driven world, things are constantly changing. Within three years, everything is new,'' and the technical center has provided programs when needed, he said.
Hernando needs an adult technical program, too, said Pat Crowley, president of the Greater Hernando Chamber of Commerce.
"If you don't have an educated workforce … (employers) are going to have to go outside the county to find the people they need to fill openings,'' she said.
"If we as a business community do not get behind this and do whatever needs to be done … we're going to have a high unemployment rate for a long, long time because the house-building is not coming back to the level it was 10 years ago.''
Tampa Bay-area communities need more vocational and technical programs, and in particular higher-end technical programs that teach skills that fast-paced, technology-centered employers are seeking, said John Hagen, president of the Pasco Economic Development Council.
"We want to make sure that we're on the cutting edge,'' Hagen said. "The skill content of jobs is going up.
"Every job has been transformed by technology and new work methods. We need centers that are up to date with the latest technology and the latest innovation so they can turn out workers that are productive."
To make that happen, the region needs the buy-in and coordination of all players, including businesses, school districts, government and even private training entities, he said.
The need is that big, he said, and that important.
"The workforce you have is probably the key factor of what you are going to end up with as your economy,'' Hagen said.
To attract the kinds of high-end businesses and industries that improve a community's economy, he said, there had better be a highly trained workforce.
"Frankly, companies are going to where the talent is,'' he said.
Hagen theorizes that when the recession lifts, there will be a number of metropolitan areas "which will emerge and, because they have done all of the right things, they're going to be very successful.''
He said he hopes the Tampa Bay area will be among them, but "my fear is that we're not getting there fast enough.''
McHugh said he is willing to keep pushing for the Hernando part of the puzzle to come together and is hopeful he can educate the community on why an adult technical education program is so important for the county's future.
"You cannot transform your economy without transforming your workforce,'' he said. "There's a direct correlation.''