Education Means Business: Bridging the Skills Gap

Written By: Erica Brown

Alachua County faces a growing shortage of workers in business fields such as building trades, health care and manufacturing.

Local educators are working with business organizations and employers to fill the gap.

A big challenge are the preconceptions of parents and young people, who believe a four-year college degree is the road to success, said Jodi Long, Santa Fe College’s associate vice president for academic affairs, health sciences.

“I tell them that entry-level health care is a pretty good gig,” said Long, who also points out that the training period for some medical jobs is relatively short.

The two years of training required for other health care specialties — fields including radiography, respiratory care, dentistry and cardiology — are half as long as the time it takes for students to earn bachelor’s degrees.

Many students start working in one of these positions and then get additional training — often with tuition assistance from their employers.

“I tell high school students that if you’re in school, taking out loans and not making money, then you’re cutting into your lifelong earnings and your retirement,” Long said. “With our careers, you can make a decent wage, live frugally and pay cash for a more advanced degree.”

Market forces have helped fill the need for healthcare workers, Long said. “When the economy tanked in 2008, people started flooding into our programs.”

CareerSource North Central Florida also assists in bridging the skills gap.

One of the thousands of people the agency has helped is Tatiana Lewis. While enrolled in the Workforce Investment Act Youth Program at CareerSource, she completed her GED and received entrepreneurial training.

She recently finished UF’s pharmacy technician program with tuition assistance from CareerSource. She hopes it will lead to a good job that can help her support herself and her 2-yearold daughter.

Students completing the 14-week pharmacy technician program can expect to earn between $10 and $14 an hour, which translates to about $20,000 and $29,000 a year, said Art Wharton, director of continuing education for UF’s College of Pharmacy.


Contractors are having a tough time finding skilled workers.

The shortage will grow with the building boom that includes construction of Butler North, Butler Town Center, Celebration Pointe and a new patient tower at UF Health Shands Hospital, said Erik Bredfeldt, the City of Gainesville’s economic development director.

“I saw a sign at a job site saying, ‘We need masons,’” he said. “Contractors are going to have to bring workers from all over the state to keep up.”

Many masons are in their fifties and sixties, and few young people are interested in the physically demanding work, experts in the building industry note.

“We’re designing buildings that don’t require masonry,” said Doug Wilcox, president of Scherer Construction of North Florida.

The falloff in construction work during the recession led to many subcontractors going out of business, said Vinnie Moreschi, the 2014 president of the Builders Association of North Central Florida.

“Commercial building hit rock bottom the last few years — later than housing did. Many subcontractors got out of the business and have found something else to do.”

Moreschi is vice president of the healthcare division at Charles Perry Partners Inc.

“We recently declined to bid on a healthcare project in Sarasota because we simply didn’t have the manpower available to meet the owner’s bid and construction schedule,” he said.

Ed Newmans, owner of Newmans Heating and Air Conditioning, sees basic gaps in some job applicants. “It starts with having a valid driver license and a clean driving record,” he said. “Many young people don’t want to do hands-on work. If they grew up on a farm or their parents worked with tools, it helps.”

Santa Fe offers apprenticeships in heating and air conditioning, plumbing, carpentry and electrical.

Mark Hurm, owner of Mark Hurm & Co. Heating and Air Conditioning, has utilized the apprenticeship program for about 20 years.

“Every one of my new guys goes through the program,” he said. “It’s a great teaching program that supplements our in-house training and training from manufacturers.”

Hurm chairs the Master Trades Committee of the Builders Association of North Central Florida.

Under the program, apprentices work full time for an employer in the construction industry and take courses in the evenings at Santa Fe’s Charles R. Perry Construction Institute.

The employer pays the tuition for the apprentice.

“When you invest in an employee, you instill a confidence in their ability to complete the program. There is always the concern that people won’t complete the program or will go to work for someone else,” Hurm said. “I haven’t had anyone leave me, and the program has certainly improved the abilities of the apprentices. We have a great working atmosphere.”

Enrollment in Santa Fe’s heating and air conditioning technician program has tripled in the last three years, noted Jane Parkin, director of construction and technical programs.

The college also offers associate’s degrees in construction management and project management. There are plenty of jobs for graduates, as well as the opportunity to pursue bachelor’s degrees in these fields, Parkin said.

“In addition, shipbuilders have offered to hire every one of our welding graduates, and they are highly paid,” she said.


Santa Fe President Jackson Sasser is dedicated to making the college’s training programs meet the needs of the marketplace.

He asked for ideas when he met with local leaders of government and business in September 2014. At a follow-up meeting in November, John McNeely, the college’s associate vice president for career and technical education, reported on achievements.

The college has responded to Newberry Mayor Bill Conrad’s plea to help people gain job-hunting skills.

“We’re helping people who don’t have access to a laptop and the Internet and don’t know much about dot-com job search engines,” McNeely said. “We’re helping them create a resume and a cover letter that stands out.”

In addition, through a U.S. Department of Labor grant, Santa Fe plans to begin training students in Computer Aided Design and Computer Aided Manufacturing (CAD/CAM) as well as other skills related to millworks and additional forms of advanced manufacturing.

UF, like colleges and universities nationwide, are responding to questions about how career-ready their students are, said Heather White, director of the university’s Career Resource Center.

While graduates in fields with skill gaps – including computer science, business and health care – are in great demand, graduates with degrees in fields such as liberals art can do much to become more marketable, she added.

“We encourage them to be involved – in campus groups and community organizations and in jobs – so they can develop leadership and critical thinking skills,” she said.

“Although GPA is important, employers value well-rounded applicants,” she said.


Even more cooperation is needed, said Tim Giuliani, president and CEO of the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce.

The chamber is working with Alachua County Schools to create a broad-based education foundation that could raise money locally and seek grants — one of the main goals would be to increase workforce readiness.

Owen Roberts, the new school superintendent, helped attract outside money when he was an associate superintendent in St. Lucie County.

The school district formed a partnership with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the world’s largest publisher of educational materials, which provided about $11.3 million to enhance teacher training and increase parent involvement in education.

In a speech in December 2014, Roberts outlined his five-year vision for the school district. At its foundation, he said, would be an “Education compact, a coalition among schools, including UF and Santa Fe; businesses; local government; the criminal justice system; healthcare organizations; nonprofit and civic organizations and religious organizations that will work to improve the community.”

Alachua County needs an infusion of resources for workforce education, Giuliani concluded.

“How do we grow talent, attract new talent and provide pathways for people in our community to succeed,” he said, are the key questions for the community.


In a speech before the school board and an enthusiastic crowd in December 2014, Alachua County Public Schools Superintendent Owen Roberts launched an ambitious five-year plan to transform the school system.

The plan will pay off economically by creating a workforce ready for the 21st-century, as students receive training that will enable them to nimbly change career paths as the job market morphs to meet changing times.

The business community — along with the University of Florida, Santa Fe College and business, government, health care and community-service organizations — will band together in an “education compact” under Roberts’ vision.

Although the school district needs to enhance job preparation for specific fields, it also must expand training in the arts in order to create civic-minded graduates, Roberts said.

He later emphasized improved training in language, including foreign languages.

“If children don’t master language skills, they’re set up for failure,” he said.

The superintendent also challenged the extensive state-mandated testing of students. Roberts proposed a dramatic statewide cutback in achievement testing, now conducted in every grade, and suggested limiting testing to the third, seventh and eleventh grades.

“If you want to get the pig ready for market, you don’t keep weighing it. You feed it,” Roberts said.

Alachua County Public Schools is in a good position for a system-wide transformation, being not too big and not too small and having a community that works well together, he said.

“We can be a model for the state, the nation and the world, a place where dreams come true for every boy and girl.”

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