BRADENTON -- Florida's top jobs chief is singing the praises of the state's unemployment numbers, but knows there is more to be done.
Jesse Panuccio, executive director of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, told the Herald during a tour of the region that while Florida's unemployment is now trending below the national average, employers are having trouble finding certain candidates.
"We have gained jobs in last two years in eight of 10 industries. The two where we haven't gained are public sector jobs and manufacturing," Panuccio said. "Manufacturing is critically important, and that's why we focused a lot in the last year to try to change state policy to bring manufacturers back to Florida."
Projections through 2020 show that construction and extraction jobs and construction trade workers will have some of the highest gains, other than food and retail, according to Florida Labor Statistics, with nearly 3,000 combined jobs expected to be produced.
"As a country we let manufacturers go overseas for a few years thinking those aren't good paying jobs," Panuccio said. "It turns out they are very good jobs, and they are also stable jobs that can help an economy, say an economy that's based on tourism and hospitality and construction, weather a recession better than some of those other industries."
Home builders have said they can't finish a house quickly enough because the carpenters skipped town when the economy tanked, and there are ways to help resolve that, Panuccio said.
"In the short term, you can do things like quick-response training at the work-force boards, and short-term courses you can help the labor force to get up to speed in various skills," he said. The long-term approach by the governor is a focus on those science, technology engineering and math courses, but those all don't necessarily cover the vocational trades, which are proving to offer good paying jobs that can weather a downturn in the economy.
"It's also important for those who want to pursue
a career in manufacturing that we don't make things like vocational education a bad word," he said. "We can show them that you can go get that education and get good jobs."
The demand for vocational education is rising, too. Manatee Technical Institute is seeing more applications this year than they have in the last two years. The trade school has accepted 599 applications for the upcoming year, and enrollment just started this past week, said Mara Howl, spokeswoman for MTI.
The school received 528 applications in the first quarter of 2011, and 557 in 2012, she added.
MTI doesn't have data yet on what courses the students are taking, but the expanded programs and new location on State Route 70 might play a factor, Howl said.
The school has a 91 percent completion rate for its programs, Howl said, where students leave with a marketable skill, and has a 91 percent placement rate to get students into jobs.
"We work real closely with the Economic Development Corporation," she said. "Mary Chilton has been here once a week with a company to see what we're doing and see how we can help them, and see if these companies can hire these students."
One of the more successful areas has been welding and machining.
"In machining, we never had 20 students in a class, and last year we had 30," Howl said. That's also thanks in part to Air Products at Port Manatee looking to hire 10 welders a month for the next 10 months, she added.
HVAC enrollment is booming, and the automotive classes always have strong enrollment, she added.
"We are beginning to offer more programs year-round," Howl said. "I think that for adults who want to go back to school and start training for a new career, they don't want to take a six-week break in the summer. We'removing our programs in the direction of being offered year-round so they don't have to stop for six weeks in the summer."
That's what happened with the auto and HVAC programs, she said.
The state is trying to provide resources to peoplelooking for career changes and additional education through its EmployFlorida.com website, where job seekers can search schools thatoffer training for a specificoccupation, plus see how many people completetraining for their occupations.
"If you're interested in being a registered nurse and looking at your local state college's program, you can look at how well are they doing, how well are they at placing people and what's the actual job demand in the community you might live in after you graduate from that college," Panuccio said.
But not every large company is having trouble finding workers.
Feld Entertainment has all sorts of jobs open, ranging from ice and train technicians to director of event marketing and sales, and the circus and show company isn't having a problem finding candidates for the 225 jobs coming to Ellenton.
The company's consolidation will be the first time the entire operation will be under one roof. That includes space for circus rehearsal, concert tour practice and an ice rink for Disney On Ice.
"We really haven't had any issues finding qualified candidates for positions we have available," said Steve Payne, spokesman for Feld.
The higher level the position, the wider the geographical net is cast, but even the technical jobs that include building sets can attract applicants from all over.
Payne said Feld will continually have openings with as large an operation as it has, and besides, there are cool perks with having a job with Feld.
"You get to tour the world as well as have a home base in Southwest Florida," Payne said.
Charles Schelle, business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.