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SPC will oversee $15 million federal job training grant to Florida community colleges

St. Petersburg College president Bill Law, left, Brad Jenkins, director of engineering technology, and U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis look at hands-on technology training during her visit to St. Petersburg College’s Clearwater campus on Wednesday.
St. Petersburg College president Bill Law, left, Brad Jenkins, director of engineering technology, and U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis look at hands-on technology training during her visit to St. Petersburg College’s Clearwater campus on Wednesday.
Published Sep. 20, 2012

St. Petersburg College engineering and technology student Tungo Harris is unemployed but has definite career goals. The U.S. Navy veteran, successfully recovering from a brain tumor, aims to finish his SPC program and seek an engineering degree from the University of South Florida.

"I want to get gainfully employed — and I figure I will be after this — with a decent salary," says Harris, 40, a St. Petersburg resident and graduate of Northeast High School.

In this lackluster economy, that's an ambition of many area folks who are looking for substantial work or to upgrade their manufacturing skills.

This should help. On Wednesday, a $15 million federal grant was announced to help a consortium of 12 Florida community colleges develop and expand innovative training programs in advanced manufacturing.

"Many countries are vying for our technology and expertise," U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis told an enthusiastic crowd gathered at St. Petersburg College's Clearwater campus, where the school last month opened a new engineering and technology training center. "We are determined to put the United States back where it needs to be."

As a Cabinet member in Barack Obama's administration, Solis dutifully told this swing state audience that the president remains keen on adding jobs. "He will pursue every good idea to put people back to work," she said.

Florida's $15 million grant is part of a nationwide, $2 billion commitment the Department of Labor began doling out last year and will continue funding, $500 million annually, for two more years.

"It's a big deal," says SPC president Bill Law, who sits on the board of directors of the statewide Workforce Florida. "Our goal is to take the Florida college system and see if we can build on some success across the state."

St. Petersburg College will receive just over $6 million of the statewide grant. Some of those funds will cover SPC's role of administering the grant for the consortium and developing an online education component.

About $2.5 million of SPC's portion of the funds will go to developing new courses and purchasing equipment that SPC engineering and technology associate dean Brad Jenkins says will happen with plenty of input from an advisory board of area manufacturers. They include Bovie Medical, Draper Lab, Raytheon and TSE Industries, among other firms that help fashion degree programs and, in turn, hire SPC students as interns and, sometimes, for full-time jobs.

SPC is more accustomed to receiving far more modest grants in the $40,000 range, so this is a major funding leap. The school offers degrees in biomedical systems, electronics, quality control, and digital design and modeling.

Colleges in the consortium include Hillsborough Community College, Pasco-Hernando Community College, Polk State College, Broward College and others in Orlando, South Florida, Jacksonville and along both of the state's coasts.

The Florida consortium's initial grant to the Department of Labor proposed a way to help train, employ and promote over 2,600 students statewide in manufacturing related fields. The colleges won commitments from 38 employers by the time the grant application was submitted. That list has since grown.

In August, SPC opened a 5,000-square-foot facility called the Collaborative Center for Emerging Technologies where hands-on manufacturing training takes place. It's an open room divided into areas for computer-aided design and drafting, electronics, 3-D design and prototyping, clean room techniques and (soon) nanotechnology.

The bulk of students are older with some work experience, says Gregory Lewis, one of the computer-aided design instructors.

If manufacturing seems like small potatoes in a Florida economy seemingly built more on theme parks and nursing homes, guess again. The advanced manufacturing sector supports some 700,000 jobs in the state economy.

In 2010, manufacturing employed 30,000 people in Pinellas County alone. That makes it the fourth-largest industry in the county.

A big deal, indeed.

Contact Robert Trigaux at trigaux@tampabay.com.

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