BRADENTON HERALD EDITORIAL | United effort needed to fill skills gap, lift economy

Sometimes the employment picture confounds the imagination.

On the one hand, Manatee County's job market looks poised for a rebound, despite an unemployment rate of 9.3 percent in August. That figure represents an 0.4-percentage point improvement over the previous month and reverses a three-month rise.

Almost twice as many Bradenton-Sarasota employers expect to add employees over the next three months than the number likely to lay off workers, according to a Manpower, Inc. survey released last month. That represents an improvement over the both the previous quarter and last year.

On a national scale, the U.S. Department of Labor's Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages puts Manatee County in lofty company. On the percentage increase in employment from March 2011 to March 2012, Manatee tied for 10th place among the country's largest counties with a 4.2 percent increase.

Certainly news to celebrate.

But on the other hand, one sector of the Manatee-Sarasota economy continues to struggle finding enough qualified workers to fill available positions. Manufacturers, one of the key components in the diversification of our economy, are dealing with a skills gap in the workforce. Even aggressive recruitment efforts are falling short.

A CareerEdge survey of 125 companies in the two counties found 71 percent reported a skills gap with almost all of those noting the problem has existed for three or more years.

How could this possibly be when the unemployment rate remains so high?

Many high-skill jobs require certifications, basic machinery skills and strong math knowledge. People are are not being drawn into this industrial sector.

Manatee Technical Institute offers a curriculum in manufacturing technology. State College of Florida has an engineering technology program designed to prepare students for jobs not only in that field but also as production technicians in manufacturing, electronics, industrial design, biomedical and related industries. Other colleges and technical institutes provide similar training.

But as noted during a skills gap discussion last week in Lakewood Ranch among stakeholders in this dilemma, training programs are not keeping pace with an ever evolving industry. Outdated equipment is a roadblock to a meaningful education.

One idea that came out of that meeting looks promising. The Manatee County school district should consider developing a high school program like one in Orlando, where high school students learn technical skills and are guaranteed employment upon graduation.

The district could recruit students into the program, too, and inform parents about this prime opportunity. Manufacturers could assist the district with equipment and mentoring.

The industry could also partner with college technical programs to ensure that workers are properly trained for available positions.

These manufacturing jobs pay well. Why workers aren't flocking to this field is puzzling. Stakeholders have a challenge ahead: Marketing these job opportunities as a pathway to a satisfying career and collaborating with educational institutions to ensure the training meets their needs.

People needs jobs, manufacturers need workers and the community needs a stronger economy. We look to CareerEdge to lead the way to a solution.