FORT MYERS, Fla. (Nov. 30, 2015) – Alex “Ander” Hernandez is only 20 years old, and he’ll likely never work a day in his life.
The LaBelle resident and recent Fort Myers Technical College (FMTC) graduate is prepared for a career doing what he loves – building things with his hands.
Hernandez, a 2013 LaBelle High School graduate, was enrolled in a four-year civil engineering program at a local university when he had an epiphany one day while driving to class.
Carpentry was his calling.
“I loved the program at the university and thought it would be great for me because I enjoy designing and the paperwork of engineering,” he said. “I’ve been doing carpentry work on the side since high school, and I was driving to campus one day and realized I was more concerned about these side projects than my schoolwork. I was looking at another three years of school and realized carpentry was my true passion.”
For Hernandez, a third-generation Hendry County citrus grower, many of those side jobs were pretty complex: building cabinetry, furniture, fences and gazebos for neighbors. He operates his shop from a corner of a building on the 60-acre family farm. He also knew he needed to build upon the skills he learned through his high school’s building trades program.
Hernandez searched online and found a perfect fit at FMTC, which offered certification in carpentry and building construction technology in 13 months.
“I always liked constructing something and seeing the final results,” he said. “It was a big life decision to make the switch.”
His family was supportive.
“My father was my greatest inspiration,” Hernandez said. “He always told us college was not for everyone. He instead received agricultural certifications from the University of Florida. He always told us we should love what we do. Working with my hands is best for me.”
FMTC and other technical schools throughout Southwest Florida offer “career within a year” opportunities for in-demand jobs in fields as diverse as carpentry, healthcare, technology, electrical, HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) and other well-paying skilled trades. Students complete coursework and earn industry certification with minimal debt and often a job lined up before graduation.
“Industry certifications are extremely important to the future of our local economy,” said Sarah Owen, president and CEO of the Southwest Florida Community Foundation. “Ander is a great example of a student who understood just how valuable a technical college education is and the vast opportunities available to certified employees in our workforce. All too often, schools and parents have a tendency to steer students to four-year degrees. Technical diplomas are just as essential to create a thriving regional economy.”
The Community Foundation is serving as the support organization for the FutureMakers Coalition, a five-county initiative to improve the quality of the region’s workforce. The Coalition’s goal is to increase the percent of working residents with certifications and college degrees to 40 percent by 2025.
For Richard Schaefer, FMTC’s instructor for carpentry and building construction technology, Hernandez was one of those rare students, “a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me as a teacher, a feather in my cap,” he said. “I told people he has made us all better – that Ander brought the best out of all of us because of his demeanor, attitude, style and work ethic. He took us to a different level.”
Schaefer said Hernandez originally planned to attend Texas A&M, the only school in the country offering marine architecture.
“He was all set to go, but the school wouldn’t give him enough scholarships, and he didn’t want to be in debt,” said Schaefer. “He went to a local university, walked away and found us. Ander is a special student, a great worker and craftsman. He’s my engineer in a carpentry class; he’s very analytical.”
Homebuilders and carpentry shops from across the country actively tried to recruit Hernandez this past summer after he won first place in regional and state SkillsUSA competitions and earned the bronze medal at the national level against 70 others. FMTC raised money to fund Hernandez’s trip, said Bill McCormick, the school’s director.
At the national level, Hernandez and his competitors were given eight hours to analyze blueprints and build a scaled-down house, with points awarded for speed, safety and quality.
“I was very close,” he said. “I would have finished it if I had another 15 minutes. Being at the national level was the highest ranking no matter what happened. Everybody there was the leader from his or her state. We were all champions.”
“There was a fellow looking over the 70 projects and he told me, ‘Your guy is going to place third or second,’” Schaefer said. “This is the best any of my students have competed at the national level. He was eligible to compete again this year, but as is so typical of Ander, he said, ‘No, Mr. Schaefer, someone else deserves that experience.’”
Hernandez completed his certification requirements in September for the National Center for Construction Education and Research, 13 months after entering FMTC’s program.
Despite the enticing job offers, he has decided to stay in Hendry County and serve the community he’s called home all his life.