Anyone who’s been involved with economic development for any length of time likely came to learn and understand this early on: Company leaders care about education. They care about the education and skill levels acquired and possessed by the people who work for them or who might one day work for them.

This is true particularly when it comes to business location and relocation. When expanding or even start-up companies consider their many site selection choices, workforce quality is always among the top three items on their wish lists. Great examples come from the manufacturing and industrial sectors, which require workforces with good math and science skills.

Where are these skills first taught? That would be in the local schools, of course.

Here in greater Lake Wales, we’re fortunate to have a number of quality schools — those in the Lake Wales Charter Schools system; those in the Polk County Public Schools; and those at the secondary level, such as Polk State College (represented locally by the JD Alexander Center and the Clear Springs Advanced Technology Center), Webber International University, and Warner University. Farther out, but not too far away, we’re served by the Ridge and Traviss vocational career centers and other secondary schools that now include the newly opened Florida Polytechnic University, the 12th institution in the State University System of Florida.

These schools are producing many fine graduates with a well-rounded education, good skills, and wonderful ways to serve their employers and their communities, but the need for more is great — especially in the manufacturing sector.

According to a just-released study by Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute, the United States faces a need for nearly 3.5 million manufacturing jobs within the next decade. However, according to the research, about 2 million of those jobs — from engineering to skilled production — very well could go unfilled due a skills gap.
The research also shows that while nine in 10 Americans believe manufacturing to be essential to the U.S. economy, only one in three parents would encourage their children to make manufacturing a career.

Craig Giffi, vice chairman of Deloitte LLP and a U.S. automotive sector leader summed up the situation this way:

“The research shows that 84 percent of manufacturing executives agree there is a talent shortage in U.S. manufacturing, and this gap will be exacerbated by more than 2.7 million professionals exiting the manufacturing workforce through retirement over the next ten years. Our research estimates that the cumulative skills gap — or the positions that likely won’t be filled due to a lack of skilled workers — will grow to 2 million between 2015 and 2025.”

About 82 percent of the manufacturing executives who took part in the research said that workforce shortages or skills deficiencies among their production employees have a significant impact on their ability to meet customer demand, implement new technologies, and increase productivity. The executives indicated that about 60 percent of their openings for skilled production jobs aren’t filled today due to a talent shortage.

When company leaders look at greater Lake Wales as a potential place to do business or build their products, they want to know whether the area can support their workforce requirements. They also want to know whether the schools, colleges, and universities can adapt quickly with student training to meet any growing or changing workforce needs.

We need to be ready for these companies when our community becomes a finalist for site selection. Even better, we need to be ready when companies first come knocking on our door.

Fortunately, we have several positive things going for us here. We already have a lot of existing coursework to help these companies’ employees. If the coursework isn’t available in the schools to meet specific and special needs, we can tap into workforce development programs, like the ones offered by CareerSource Polk. This is the public-private agency that connects employers with qualified and skilled talent and job seekers with employment and career development opportunities.

In addition, we’re fortunate to be located in a large population center, where skilled workers can be found within an hour’s drive in any direction.

Given the examples and research data mentioned earlier, it’s clear that vibrant economic development is dependent upon quality education and a well-skilled workforce. At the same time, education is better served when business is involved — offering financial and other resources, providing sponsorships and internships, and getting company leaders and employees in the schools as positive role models, mentors, and guest teachers.
We all win when education supports the needs of business and business supports the needs of education.