Officials in Hernando, Pasco and Pinellas counties say Tampa Bay could lure more high-paying jobs if the labor pool included more skilled industrial workers.
Now local lawmakers are buying into that notion, too.
They added $1.15 million to the state budget to a create a German-style apprenticeship program to bring high-tech employers to the three counties. Participants will learn advanced industrial techniques starting in high school, then partner with local companies.
"Manufacturing is having a renaissance in America and a lot of these manufacturing jobs that were lost are returning to the United States," Pasco Commissioner Kathryn Starkey said. "But the problem is we have not had a strong vocational program in years and so we need to get back to putting an importance on these kinds of skills."
The budget, contained as a line item dealing with economic development, is awaiting Gov. Rick Scott's signature.
Hernando, Pasco and Pinellas counties would each contribute $400,000 — $200,000 over the next two years — to match the state funding to launch the program, known as Innovation Training Centers. Pasco and Pinellas counties had already approved funds for the program. Hernando commissioners voted Tuesday to approve the allocation.
"This would be such a home run in my opinion,'' Hernando County Commissioner Nick Nicholson said of the program. "Three counties working together can really enhance our opportunities.''
Similar to Apprenticeship 2000, which started in North Carolina 18 years ago, students will enroll in the program as juniors in high school. Part of their day will be spent at a high-tech company, learning hands-on skills. After graduation, they'll attend a community college or vocational school for two years to finish their apprenticeships.
The apprenticeship idea started in North Carolina but has spread to South Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky. The Tampa Bay region would serve as a pilot for the rest of Florida.
A study by the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council found roughly 3,000 vacancies in more than 100 manufacturing skill sets across the bay area, including precision machinists, tool and die makers, electronics technicians, CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machinists, CNC programmers, machine technicians, mold/plastics technicians, welding fabricators and quality inspectors.
"A lot of us talk about jobs being a No. 1 priority, but the truth is the quality of jobs matters also," said state Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby. "Adding this type of training will give us a lot more opportunities to have manufacturers, when they are looking around to see where they want to build new facilities, look at our area because of the skills of our workforce."
Bryan Kamm, interim director of the Florida chapter of the German American Chamber of Commerce, said European-based manufacturers are seeking U.S. workers certified to operate high-tech industrial machines.
Building up the area's high-tech workforce won't happen overnight, Kamm said. The apprenticeships last four years, then it might be several more years before large manufacturers take notice. Likely, small companies that fill the supply chain will enter the market first.
Assuming Scott does not veto the funding request, the first students will launch their studies next year. Before that step, the three counties will create an interlocal agreement and governing structure for the training centers, Pinellas Commissioner Susan Latvala said.
Eventually, manufacturers will fund the program.
Rich Shopes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6236.