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Schools blamed for unqualified employees

Pinellas County business owners are having a hard time finding qualified employees and they put the blame squarely on the public school system.

Job-training programs and high school vocational programs are lacking, say 3,500 business owners who responded to a county survey.

About 70 percent say the school system is not meeting the training needs of business, while 73 percent rated the county's high schools as only fair or poor.

County officials say the survey is a "wake-up call."

"I take it as very constructive," said Rick Dodge, the county's economic development director. "It gets everything up on the table."

Dodge released the survey results Monday at the county's first economic development summit, which was attended by more than 350 members of the business community. Addressing the survey results is one of the county's top priorities, Dodge said.

While the school system was the top concern, it is only part of the problem in Pinellas County, business owners said: Day care is scarce, taxes are excessive, building codes are too demanding, traffic is horrible and the bus system is not much of an option.

Still, 72 percent of those who responded to the survey think the future is bright. Call the cup half full.

In their march to become a more business-friendly government, county officials announced they will form task forces to look at education and day care. They also say that within the next two months, they will rewrite the county's renovation code to make it easier for businesses in unincorporated areas to redevelop property.

While many of the survey answers were not unexpected, they highlight problems in education that many Florida counties are facing.

Pinellas County School Board member Susan Latvala, who attended the all-day conference, says the survey will help the district focus its efforts.

"It's embarrasing but it's not anything I didn't know," she said. "We've needed this data to force the kind of systemic changes that will make the school system work for all children."

If it takes a lead from the survey results, the first thing the school district might want to do is look at the computer skills business owners say their employees will need in the next three years. Internet knowledge, computer programing, data base management, accounting and desktop publishing top the list.

If the needs are not addressed, the county might see more companies moving elsewhere. Almost 10 percent of the business owners say they already are considering that option. Most of them say they would leave the Tampa Bay region or the state.

Of course, it wasn't all bad news. Arts and entertainment and parks and beaches rated high, as did the quality of the county's police and fire protection.

Ken Wiggins, who runs a small travel agency in downtown St. Petersburg, says he agrees with many of the survey's findings, especially the need to deal with the education system head on.

"The real key to me is always going to be the follow up," he said.