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Business, education leaders grapple with ways to make job market more accessible

Published Jan. 17, 2014

Local business and education leaders grappled this week with a labor market that's still too complicated for job seekers to navigate and still ill-equipped to match workers with employers' needs.

As jobless rates continue to shrink, executives lament how finding talented people, critical for success, now takes longer than ever. High school and college officials say they are challenged to keep their programs updated on ever-changing skill sets their students will need both to find work and build rewarding careers.

Both business and school representatives called for a better clearinghouse to link job hunters with providers.

Here is the sobering reality, one school official explained.

"Kids know about five jobs," said Scott Brooks, director of technical and adult education for Hillsborough County schools. "A football player. A basketball player. A rapper. A vet. And a doctor. They do not know what is out there."

Here are my five takeaways from the meeting called to assess the state of the region's workforce. It was sponsored by the workforce boards in Hills­borough and Pinellas counties and emceed by the Tampa Bay Business Journal.

1. Several leaders emphasized the need for Tampa Bay to better tell "its story" — why it's a worthy and a unique place to live — to become more visible to distant businesses and talented people.

2. Leaders of area technology firms stressed the growing resources needed to find and keep top talent. "There's a lack of people to drive innovation," said Bob Dutkowsky, chief executive of Tech Data Corp., the giant Clearwater distributor that sells $100 million worth of technology products daily in 100 countries. "It's a steel cage death match over talent," he said, where Tech Data must hire 1,500 people annually just to match its turnover.

At Tampa tech service firm Tribridge, where jobs average $95,000, CEO Tony DiBenedetto said the unemployment rate is "zero" for the people he looks to hire. He steals workers from other firms, which drives up everybody's costs.

3. A goal at the University of South Florida is for every student to gain international experience by studying or pursuing a business internship abroad, said USF president Judy Genshaft. That kind of broadening can help young people get ahead.

4. What if Tampa Bay surveyed the skills most in need by a thousand small area businesses, then worked with area schools to train people accordingly, suggested Tribridge's DiBenedetto. "If we do not train the next generation, we will fall behind," he warned

5. Young people are not the only ones unaware of today's opportunities. "Adults trying to get back into the workforce do not realize the range of potential work in the market," said St. Petersburg College president Bill Law. To help, SPC will revamp and speed up its degree or skills training programs. Many adults lack the time for traditional education, Law said, especially when trying to pay the rent.

Want an improved job market? Keep business and education talking to each other.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at rtrigaux@tampabay.com.

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