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Business needs key to county economic plan

A survey of county business owners found that many of them think the skills their employees need will change dramatically during the next three years, shifting from talents such as verbal communication and telephone etiquette to more high-tech abilities.

For Rick Dodge, the county's economic development director, the responses point to a need for more training and education programs.

That, in a nutshell, is the key to Dodge's game plan: find out what the business community wants and react.

Today, Dodge and county commissioners are throwing a sort of debut party for their new economic development campaign. They and about 300 members of the business community will meet in St. Petersburg for an all-day economic summit.

"We're very excited," Dodge said. "We have a truly dynamic program planned that's based upon the input we got from the community."

The cornerstone of the summit will be the survey of businesses. The county will use the results to set priorities, Dodge said. The county sent surveys to 35,000 businesses, and 3,500 responded.

He said he has already talked to secondary and higher education officials about creating programs to train workers.

Perhaps the most telling response to the question of what skills employees will need in three years was the number-one answer: that employers weren't quite sure themselves, Dodge said.

About 60 percent of the 3,500 who responded gave that answer. The other top answers to that question were, in order: Internet knowledge, computer programing, data base management, accounting/bookkeeping skills and desktop publishing.

None of the top five skills they listed as current needs matched the ones they expect to be in demand in three years. Of the current skills they cited, the top five were: verbal communication, telephone etiquette, problem solving, selling and interpersonal skills.

"What it says to all of us is that to be really successful in every sense of what economic development means, we're going to have to be much more responsive and much quicker in our turnaround in planning and delivery of services" to the business community, Dodge said.

Lee Arnold, chairman of Colliers Arnold, one of the region's largest commercial real estate brokerages, said he's excited to see an economic development summit in Pinellas County.

"It's even more exciting to see the political climate focused on economic development," Arnold said.

Arnold, one of the featured speakers, plans to talk about solving problems through regional partnerships.

"When we work together, we get pretty impressive results," Arnold said.

Other speakers include U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Rocks Beach, commercial real estate developer Mel Sembler and Florida Progress chief executive Jack Critchfield.

The summit starts at 9 a.m. at the Coliseum, 535 Fourth Ave. N. The registration fee is $55.

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