FORT MYERS, Fla. (May 23, 2017) – Companies throughout Southwest Florida are looking for new employees with business, accounting and Internet technology skills – and nearly 79 percent are willing to pay more for qualified candidates.

Despite reports of gaping workforce shortages in the health care industry, a FutureMakers Coalition survey of businesses and nonprofit organizations throughout the five-county region discovered local companies are looking for employees with vastly different skills.

Tessa LeSage

“When we talk about workforce demand in Southwest Florida, it’s easy to focus on health care because health care is an economic driver in the region,” said Tessa LeSage, director of social innovation and sustainability for the Southwest Florida Community Foundation, which serves as the backbone organization for the FutureMakers Coalition. “When we dig deeper, we’re finding there are other employment demands that may be overlooked by the potential workforce and education system training that workforce. Business people are saying they need business people. They need employees with business management, supervision, accounting, administrative and web and computer skills.”

More than 100 employers responded to the survey, which combined with other FutureMakers data and the 2015 Workforce Now report, provide a first-of-its-kind comprehensive look at current and future workforce needs and gaps.

The FutureMakers Coalition was created to address workforce challenges in the region and improve the skills and demand for local employees by increasing the number of residents with college degrees, industry-specific certifications and other high-quality credentials.

LeSage said the research provides the Coalition with a directive in its ongoing conversations with area high schools, businesses, post-secondary programs and people working with students, the under- and unemployed to guide them to well-paying careers in Southwest Florida. It will also shape the programs colleges, universities and technical colleges need to offer to ensure students have access to programs that make them work-ready.

“Building the workforce locally is more effective and efficient,” she said. “Now and looking to the future, we have to guide students to pick career paths with full knowledge of the jobs available in Southwest Florida. Everyone wonders why people leave here, and we now have information to show that they’re likely training for and studying for jobs that don’t exist here.”

The Coalition’s findings mirror a recent report by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, which noted two-thirds of employers are seeking graduates with business, accounting, engineering and computer science degrees. Fewer than half of the class of 2015 possessed those skills.

Many local companies are willing to train certificate- and degree-holders, and they’re in growth mode, expecting to hire additional workers in the coming years.

Brent Stokes

The needs at Stokes Marine in Fort Myers cover the gamut – from business skills to specialized trades, said owner Brent Stokes. The company recently conducted interviews for a variety of openings, and Stokes expects to hire another five employees when the company’s new headquarters is completed.

Nearly half of the companies responding to the FutureMakers survey offer incentives for new hires – from education support and cash bonuses to housing costs and the opportunity to work from home. Stokes Marine provides cash incentives and will pay more for hires with accounting skills as well as those experienced in carpentry, drafting and welding.

Business needs certain skills … now

The talent and post-secondary education requirements sought by Southwest Florida businesses cover the spectrum. Companies want candidates with business (30 percent), accounting (30 percent) and administrative office (20.5 percent) skills, whether they’ve earned associate, bachelor’s or master’s degrees. Tech-related fields, among the top four to seven in-demand skills, include web and .net application development and programming, cloud computing and virtualization, and cybersecurity.

“The business survey is saying that technical certification in business administration and accounting is nearly as valuable as an associate or bachelor’s degree,” said Cindy Banyai, the community foundation’s evaluation and research consultant who analyzed the survey data. The results, she said, also correlate with other findings demonstrating the increased role technical colleges will play in creating workforce-ready graduates who can earn industry-specific training and certification in one to two years.

“Technical school provides a low-cost option to a career ladder,” Banyai said. “Employers are telling us they will hire based on a certification. An employee learns a skill without a lot of cost and can later move on to an associate or bachelor’s degree.”

Kim Hansen

“I’m a huge proponent of education, but if everyone gets college degrees, we have no one to fix the plumbing, no one skilled to repair air conditioners, tint windows or learn printing,” said Kimberly Hansen, a human resources consultant and founder of KHR Solutions in Cape Coral who helps local businesses find qualified candidates. “These aren’t the types of jobs high schoolers are thinking of.”

The trades are particularly in demand for Stokes Marine, which constructs seawalls, boatlifts and docks.

“The trades are really depleted right now,” Stokes said. “It’s difficult to find an installer with a carpentry background or equipment operators. It’s easier finding sales and accounting managers. We need all skill sets.”

Banyai describes the current workforce as “hollow in the middle. Businesspeople are saying they need mid-level managers, receptionists, office managers and employees with basic customer service skills, and they can’t fill these positions.”

These big-picture needs only partially align with the K-12 focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) or the present-day push to health care careers. That National Association of Colleges and Employers study showed just a 1.8 percent need nationally for health science graduates while 11.4 percent of the 2015 graduating class received health care-related degrees. High school students who attended the FutureMakers Coalition’s inaugural regional student summit last year questioned the real-life applications of STEM in the workplace.

“We cannot put all of our eggs in one basket if the goal is a sustainable economy in Southwest Florida,” LeSage said. We have to check in with local businesses regularly to understand their changing needs and feed that information to the education system and the workforce. When no one signs up for a business program at a technical college, the program gets dropped. Right now we’re educating our young people for jobs that don’t necessarily exist in the community, so they’re leaving. The flipside of that is in-demand jobs don’t get filled, creating a gap that becomes costly for businesses to fill.”

More specialized programs needed

Many local businesses said they are willing to work with new hires who have the essential skills. From there, they’ll fine tune an employee’s talent through in-house training, tuition reimbursement, mentoring, flex time to attend classes and by awarding scholarships. Advancing an employee’s skills and guiding them on a career path is especially difficult in remote regions of Southwest Florida, particularly Hendry and Glades counties. Local certification and degree programs simply aren’t available.

Clewiston-based First Bank uses a national workplace skills test to determine if potential applicants are a good fit. Employees need only a high school diploma or GED; the bank will help them receive industry-specific certification and provide training and opportunities for advancement, said Mali Gardner, vice president of training and development.

“It’s always helpful if they have certifications or college, but we grow our own,” she said. “They can start as a teller and be promoted to customer service, the loan department and management positions. We have one employee with a teaching degree who decided she just didn’t want to be a teacher.”

Although First Bank employees complete mandatory compliance courses online, Gardner laments the lack of a local post-secondary program for those on the management track.

“Having a branch management training program offered right here in town would be helpful,” she said. “It’s a specialized skill and really does require in-person instruction. It would be beneficial for a local college to offer this.”

The closest college is 31 miles away at Florida SouthWestern’s LaBelle campus, already a major round trip for an employee base that’s mostly working mothers with child care constraints. The widening of CR 80 will further complicate the commute for 1,100 days, Gardner noted.

“We’ve considered the Dale Carnegie program, but it’s too expensive,” she said. “We could easily send four to five employees to monthly training for certification. I imagine other employers in the area would likely send employees for supervisory training. Finding management courses is the hardest area for us.”

First Bank employs 98 and is looking at Immokalee for a seventh possible location.

Banyai said college graduates often don’t realize how their degrees translate into the real world. Like the teacher working at First Bank, a bachelor’s candidate can find employment in the business sector even if he or she didn’t major in business.

“They can use their education to stay in Southwest Florida and get business and management skills they can later take to another company or use as entrepreneurs and start their own business,” she said.

Connecting the key players

Perhaps the most important findings of the FutureMakers business survey points to the need for more communications between schools, businesses and post-secondary institutions to fill the hollow, the workforce gap.

“Creating a thriving workforce pipeline means we need stronger partnerships with universities, colleges and tech colleges,” LeSage said. “We need to reach students as early as middle school so they can envision the path they need to take to get a well-paying job in Southwest Florida. Traditional and nontraditional students need to know the steps they can take to an attainable career. We also need to get businesses more involved in recruiting from local schools and defining post-secondary programs that will help them fill key positions.”

Businesses could benefit by looking at the programs offered by Naples-based Arthrex, among the larger employers in Southwest Florida. The company recruits extensively from local colleges and offers internships and job shadowing that let students test the career waters. The orthopedic medical device manufacturer is also looking into developing a co-op program with Florida Gulf Coast University. It reaches out to Collier County students as early as third grade and works with local technical colleges to design programs to graduate students with specialized skills to operate and maintain its equipment. The company also offers externships for teachers and meets with students in the district’s math and entrepreneurial academies to discuss its needs. Arthrex’s extensive involvement in local schools is designed to showcase its available career paths and well-paying jobs right here at home.

Mike Boose

“FGCU and Hodges have gotten better at exposing students to our needs,” said Mike Boose, the company’s human resources director. “All three technical schools have been very good in customizing programs to the skills the business community says it needs. Manufacturing jobs are growing rapidly in Southwest Florida. We need additional vocational training and to expand existing programs.”

Aysegul Timur, the dean of the Johnson School of Business at Hodges University and one of the coauthors of the 2015 Workforce Now report, is constantly assessing the needs local businesses discuss during meetings of the FutureMakers Coalition, the Horizon Council and other groups.

The Workforce report, which was released in May 2016, also identified supervisory positions in retail, construction and food preparation among the top 10 local gaps in the workforce. Maintenance and repair trades were also noted as difficult to find qualified candidates.

“I was really surprised employers are looking for people with a general business education,” Timur said. “These conversations really opened my eyes to the important role technical colleges serve. They’re doing an amazing job. I also realized we need to connect individuals to short-term certification programs that would prepare them for a supervisory role. They may have technical knowledge and skills but don’t know how to manage a team.”

Timur is currently developing a two-year certification program to prepare individuals for supervisory positions, provide administrative skills and the confidence to enter the workforce and over time enroll “in a college degree program for advanced, higher paying positions.”

Creating that important alliance between businesses and schools is already underway in Charlotte County. Hanson, president of the county’s Society for Human Resource Management chapter, is arranging meetings with business leaders to outline the skills they see lacking in the current workforce. She’ll present those findings to high schools.

“High school students need to see there are more options than just leaving the area or going to college,” Hanson said. “We have the opportunity to send students in multiple directions and to be successful if they put forward an effort.”