May 20, 2024

Editor's Page

Learning and Earning

A change for the better

Mark R. Howard | 3/1/2021

Fifteen years ago to the month in this space, I wrote about an apprenticeship program that had just been founded by several surveying and mapping firms in Southeast Florida. The firms were having trouble hiring entry-level survey technicians — the workers who stand in streets, fields and yards and take measurements with laser-sighting equipment and the telescope-on-a-tripod devices called theodolites. The jobs paid a living wage, but there was no training curriculum at either the local high school or community college level and no pipeline of workers, meaning the surveying firms had to hire on a prayer and train the techs on the job. The apprenticeship program — administered by a private consultant and approved by the state — combined on-the-job training and a couple years of year-round class work, and early grads were performing well on the job.

At the time, such apprenticeships were relatively rare. Under former Superintendent (and later state senator) Don Gaetz, the Okaloosa County School District had started a program that enabled high school students to earn professional certifications in several fields, including the construction trades and information technology, and get on-the-job training from local employers in the process. But there wasn’t a lot else to brag about statewide in terms of apprenticeships or career education in general. In a state where 54% of jobs require skills training beyond high school but not a four-year degree, the K-12 system has remained wedded to an approach aimed at funneling every kid toward college, whether that shoe fits or not.

It’s nice to be able to say that things have changed for the better over the course of the past decade and a half. Gaetz’s CHOICE program ultimately went statewide under a different acronym, CAPE — the Career and Professional Employment Act — and districts throughout Florida now offer a host of industry certifications to high school students. Even more notable, a generation of political leaders, beginning with former Gov. Jeb Bush up through Gov. Ron DeSantis, who’s been a strong advocate of apprenticeships, have embraced apprenticeships as a key strategy in developing skilled workers who don’t need a four-year degree to hold good jobs.

Apprenticeships typically involve on-the-job learning coupled with technical instruction that the business pays for. To offset the costs, local workforce development boards may provide supportive services. Florida now ranks ninth among the states in the number of new apprentices and 11th in the total number of apprentices.

More than 4,500 companies in Florida now offer apprenticeships, including CVS, PGT and Lockheed Martin. Between June 2019 and June 2020, the state added more than two apprenticeships a month. Apprentices earn an average starting wage of $15 an hour, with the average starting salary, post-apprenticeship, of $60,000. More than 90% of apprentices are still employed nine months after completing a program.

Below is a sample of programs that have emerged in the past few years as a partnership formed among the state Department of Education, the Department of Economic Opportunity and CareerSource Florida, which oversees workforce development policy and investment for the state. In 2019, CareerSource launched an outreach campaign called Apprentice Florida to encourage and assist businesses in establishing apprenticeships. Note that the apprenticeships encompass jobs that, while falling broadly within the service sector, are a long way from dead-end burger-flipping work.

In Tallahassee, a fast-growing IT firm called Inspired Technologies began a program in 2019 that enables apprentices to start on the company’s support desk and in two years advance to become senior network consultants with salaries of between $60,000 and $100,000.

2019 also saw the first class of 81 students graduate from the Miami-Dade Youth Pre-Apprenticeship Career and Technical Training Program. The 23-month program targets income-eligible 11th- and 12th-grade students who complete 300 hours in one of 12 programs in skilled trades, ranging from sheet metal work to HVAC installation, plumbing and electrical work. A video from the program features a young man named Douglas Baptiste, who completed the building trades apprenticeship and says he can now point to work and “brag to people that I built that.”

CareerSource Central Florida helps support a program offered by insurance company Hartford to receive federal recognition for a registered apprenticeship. A number of insurance companies in Florida and elsewhere have experienced difficulty recruiting young people into the industry, and the Hartford designed its apprenticeship to establish a pipeline of disability analysts. Over the course of two years, apprentices earn credit toward an associate’s degree in health information technology management.

There are more than 370,000 unfilled jobs in Florida, and there’s still a “skills gap” in the state’s workforce — too few trained workers for available jobs. A 2018 report by Career- Source and the Florida DOE found that nearly a quarter of 247,399 estimated vacancies reported by nearly 54,000 private employers in the state involved skills gaps. In addition, the Florida Chamber of Commerce has identified long-term gaps in a number of key economic sectors, including aviation/aerospace, health care and distribution and logistics.

But the state is moving in the right direction — the apprenticeship programs and the resources they command reflect two important things: First, a change in thinking that pigeonholed vocational education as a second-class option and relegated vocational teachers and students to second-class status.

Second, the apprenticeship strategy reflects a sophisticated understanding among Florida’s leaders of the intertwined nature of education, job training and economic development. The quality of the state’s workforce, ultimately, is its premier economic asset.

— Mark Howard, Executive Editor


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