story: Theresa Campbell /// photography: fred lopez
Vocational education can be a blueprint to success. The potential is there for graduates in skilled trades to be recruited by companies nationwide offering top salaries—up to six figures. However, is the competition hurting Lake County businesses who struggle to find sufficient skilled workers?
“The opportunities are endless,” says Zack Thomas (pictured above), 26, of Fruitland Park, who graduated in 2009 from Lake Technical College. He has heard there are oil pipeline welding jobs in the Dakotas with earnings of $80,000 in six months, and the big bucks to be made in Alaska or in Houston’s offshore oilrigs.
“Being a welder or being a tradesman and knowing a skill or trade, you have the opportunity to do anything you want, not just in the United States, but in the world,” Thomas says. “If I wanted to right now, I could call my local business agent in the union and say, ‘Hey, I want to move to China,’ and he could get me a welding job in China right now. I have had opportunities to see and go anyplace I would want to go. It’s amazing.”
Thomas worked in North Carolina after graduating from Lake Tech, and chose to return to Lake County to marry and start a family. He’s now employed at Walt Disney World Resort, where he does engineering maintenance in welding, air conditioning, and plumbing.
“My personal feeling is more hands-on skills are taught at technical schools, and they are skills you’re going to know for the rest of your life. No one can take it from you,” says Thomas, who believes getting a “career in a year” beats being strapped with student loans.
Companies beyond Lake County are hiring students with technical training, according to Dr. Diane Culpepper, executive director of Lake Tech.
“We had a Mississippi shipbuilder come test our students for contract work,” she says. “Of course we want our graduates to stay in Lake County, but there are opportunities all over the U.S.”
Local earning potential
New welders staying in the region can earn $15 to $25 an hour, she says. After six years, welders and those in auto collision are making more than $80,000.
“Folks who go into correction officer training, a 420-hour short program (15-weeks) get hired before they even complete it practically because there is such a need,” Culpepper says. “They make $35,000 with benefits right out the gate.”
One challenge for Lake Tech is the number of employers who want to hire students before they graduate.
“It’s a hard call because it’s important to me that they finish their program, but if they have a job offer, it’s important to them that they get to work,” Culpepper says.
The problem is many of the skilled workers today are Baby Boomers who are retiring, and employers are unable to fill these vacancies. This dilemma has almost reached crisis point.
“Auto collision and welding are two that we can barely keep to the end of the program,” Culpepper says, while students in licensed programs of nursing, law enforcement, or cosmetology must finish their programs and go through state boards before they can work.
The struggle to find workers
David Macdonald, co-owner of M&S Air Conditioning in Fruitland Park, says potential technicians must pass drug screening, background checks, have a good driving record, and should have trade school training.
“To try to get all of that to line up at the same time is very hard,” he says. “We’re a service-oriented country and those are the things that our young adults need to pick up on.”
He strives to find potential employees with leadership qualities.
“We try to recruit guys with a military background,” says Macdonald. “I am always accepting applications and always on the lookout for good people.”
Joe Ciceri, owner of Electrical Works of Central Florida in Yalaha, needs qualified electricians.
“It’s very hard to find trained guys for sure,” says Ciceri, who believes there should be more trade schools and more incentives for skilled trades training.
“In the electrical trades, they no longer require employees to be certified or to be licensed in any way,” Ciceri says. “They used to have a law for every eight employees you had on a job, you had one journeyman that had a journeyman’s license.”
However, the electricians working for Ciceri do have journeymen’s licenses or work experience. “There are unlimited possibilities going into the electrical field,” he says. “There’s a lot of money; it’s a good career.”
Promoting career opportunities
Business, allied health, engineering, biomedical science, drafting, building construction, and culinary arts are among 72 career and professional academies in local middle and high schools, according to Julie Summerlin, director of career and technical education for Lake County Schools.
“Thirty programs of study have an industry certification,” she says.
In 2015, industry certifications were earned by 1,691 students, meaning these graduates went from high school into a career.
“When culinary students earn their certification, we’ve been told most of them get a $1 raise immediately because it is a requirement that restaurants have staff members with that credential,” she says.
Efforts are also made to expose younger students to workforce careers. Lake Tech takes a virtual auto paint stimulator into middle school classrooms for students to put on a mask and experience painting a car. The goal is to broaden students’ minds about more job possibilities, and Lake-Sumter State College recently spotlighted the daily work of electrical linemen to 100 high school students so they could learn about one of LSSC’s newest programs, Electrical Distribution Technology, taught at the college’s Sumterville campus.
Duke Energy offered 13 LSSC’s engineering technology students externship opportunities for the summer. Some students are working with field journeyman relay technicians to learn about safety, construction, maintenance, and troubleshooting. Other students focus on project development, AutoCAD programs, and design, while some are learning about power grid engineering.
The power company provided $110,000 in grants to support both the Engineering Technology and Electrical Distribution Technology programs at LSSC, and Duke donated a large power transformer to give students an opportunity to learn about transformer construction, maintenance, and testing in general.
Duke also awarded $28,000 to the Education Foundation of Lake County, to be matched 100 percent for the state, to fund STEM (science, technology, engineering and manufacturing) initiatives.
“Education is critical to the health and advancement of any community and we are proud to play a small role,” says Jerry Miller, government and community relations manager for Duke.
In another partnership, Lake Tech practical nursing students now have access to nursing facilities at LSSC’s South Lake campus in Clermont.
“This is just once facet of a collaborative effort between the two institutions to provide post-secondary education and workforce training in Lake County,” says Sasheika Tomlinson, director of marketing college relations at LSSC.
Florida is recognized as one of the leaders in career and technical education in the U.S., according to Culpepper, who noted the state is “very forward thinking” in applying for grants and apprenticeship opportunities for students—all part of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) legislation passed at the federal level.
“It’s really trying to connect all of the pieces between training, and the Department of Labor and the Department of Education working together,” Culpepper says. “It’s at the top of our minds because it is very important legislation.”