MANATEE -- Officials from the Manatee County School District met Tuesday with representatives from the Manatee County Chamber of Commerce and the Suncoast Workforce to discuss developing skills for the workforce in Manatee County schools.
"There are local businesses that are having problems finding employees," said County Commissioner Carol Whitmore. "We should start at lower level grades in schools to get students interested in staying and seeing what we can offer in Manatee County."
Doug Wagner, director of adult career and technical education for the Manatee County School District, said high school students passed 1,600 industry certifications last year. Adobe Photoshop was the most popular certification, followed by Adobe Dreamweaver and Solidworks.
"Kids are into media and computers," Wagner said. "For them, this is very exciting."
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Engineering is an elective program at Manatee County middle and elementary schools. McNeal Elementary now has a 3D printer, as does Southeast High School.
"We have these things in our schools that people might not know about," Wagner said.
A school district concern is ensuring graduates who are not college bound can find employment.
Wagner said areas of employment in high demand in Sarasota and Manatee counties include air conditioning and heating, automotive services, welding, carpentry, dental assistants and electricians.
"We want all of our students to be able to find a job," Wagner said.
Jacki Dezelski, vice president of east county and community development for the Manatee Chamber of Commerce, suggested Manatee Technical Institute reach out to the Chamber of Commerce for job opening projections.
"We could gladly do projections for entry-level service openings," Dezelski said.
Manatee Technical Institute programs with the highest enrollment are: cosmetology, 194; automotive, 130; applied welding, 114; and culinary arts, 108.
Wagner said 72 percent of technical school graduates statewide have just a high school diploma.
"Not everyone is geared to go to college, and they are still very successful," Whitmore said.
The school district wants to encourage students who may not be college bound to attend a career program and attain their high school diplomas.
"With a high school diploma, you can be an assistant for installations and repairs and your average entry earnings would be a little over $16,000," Wagner said. "But with industry certifications, you can do the installations and repairs and make around $29,000. It does make a difference. The investment pays off. It's about getting a job."
Wagner and Rick Mills, superintendent of schools, said career readiness programs in Manatee County also benefit college-bound students.
One way is through articulated credits, where high school students earn credits through career certification programs.
The high school career programs include accounting operations, web design, TV productions and building trades.
Hillsborough, Pasco, Pinellas, Polk and Sarasota are reciprocal counties that recognize the credits.
Wagner said if 655 students finish three career programs at the high school level it amounts to $518,000 in savings over classes taken at technical school or community or state colleges.
"Programs like culinary arts and law enforcement provide a pathway for higher qualifications," Mills said.
Whitmore said she wants to involve the Manatee County School Board in highlighting job opportunities for students from early grades.
"We should continue convening and continue the conversation to find more opportunities," Whitmore said.
Mills said the district is looking for more representation and stakeholders to join in the conversation of employing graduates in Manatee County.
"It's cyclical," Dezelski said. "Five years ago we were telling the opposite story."
The school district will discuss school workforce programs at Friday's CEO roundtable.
Erica Earl, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081.