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Columbia County Economic Development
"We don't have a workforce strategy"

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – Yesterday morning at 8:30 am, Columbia County's Workforce Development Committee met to begin finding solutions for creating a "ready workforce" in Columbia County. Florida Gateway College President, Dr. Larry Barrett, is focused on making FGC a regional instrument in workforce development and incumbent worker training. "We need to do a needs assessment of different industries... We need to do this right... We don't have a workforce strategy."

Mike McKee, Public Relations Dir., FGC; Glenn Hunter, County Econ. Dev. Dir.; Dr. Larry Barrett, President FGC. (left to right)


Columbia County, Florida bills itself as the Gateway to Florida. It is Florida's quintessential "good ole' boy" county. It sits at the intersection of I-75 and I-10, in what many would call a perfect location. For generations it discouraged economic development in order to keep wages low, the good ole' boys in the dough, workers in the fields, and the races separate and unequal.

In May 2011, Florida's newly appointed Economic Development Czar, Grey Swoop, visited Columbia County to meet with Enterprise Florida's Rural Issues Working Group in Lake City. No one reserved a room and the meeting was held in an area just off of the lobby of the Comfort Inn, in the breakfast bar.

The only question asked at that meeting was by the Observer. You can read the question and Mr. Swoop's response here: Florida's Economic Development Czar Came to Columbia County – Really

2016: Columbia County Playing Catch-Up

Economic Dev. Dir. Hunter began, "We are trying to find how we can have a ready workforce – work with the educational institutions – the high school and the college and look at how we can line up with our local industries."

Mr. Hunter addressed the lack of student/worker soft skills and incumbent worker training.

Glenn Hunter explains the extent of the "catch-up."

He continued, "We need to begin working with our high schools, elementary schools, and middle schools to start driving the workforce to create the image that this is a good place to go get a job, a little higher paying job."

Mike McKee, the Public Relations Director for FGC asked, "Has anybody done a survey with the business community to see where their needs are? I know everybody complains that there are not any workers that want to work."

In 2011, the Columbia County School District spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a Logistics Academy. Your reporter asked if anyone knew of the success of high school logistics program. See: Economic Development: $500,000 Banner Center Disappears; Rail Spur Not a Panacea

Debbie Motes, the Economic Development Coordinator was the only one who had an idea. She said, "The only number that I've ever heard, and that came from one of the area companies, stated they hired two out of the high school that had gone through he logistics course, got their certifications, and neither one of those was currently employed with them."

Dr. Barrett asked, "So why can't they retain them? Is it work ethics? Is it drugs? Is it drug testing?"

Ms. Motes said, "It is a combination of all of them."

Your reporter asked, "Dr. Barrett asked an important question. Who is supposed to know?"

Mr. McKee said, "I don't think there is one clearing house."

Economic Dev. Dir. Hunter added, "It's everybody. That's why we have the workforce committee starting to drill down on this... We don't scientifically have the information. We need to start running down the list and see if we can quantify that."

Mr. McKee added, "The Chamber was going to do something like that; was going to survey their businesses."

Dr. Barrett added, "That's the key. (Referring to Target Industries, who has admitted to difficulties retaining employees). I don't know much about Target. I haven't been able to meet with them yet. If they are losing a hundred people out of a hundred and fifty, that's costing them a lot each year in training. So they're either not hiring the right people or we don't have the right people. We have to figure this out."

Developing a Survey Form: "We don't have a workforce strategy"

The committee discussed developing a survey form to address the high turn-over rate experienced by the employers in Columbia County.

Mike McKee suggested, "We can all get together and develop a survey to get us the answers we need to go forward."

Dr. Barrett said, "I know it takes a lot of time, but we need to do a needs assessment of different industries... We need to do this right... We don't have a workforce strategy."

Mr. Hunter added, "We don't have a collaborative concerted effort."

Mr. McKee added, "We know the problem is there, but nobody wants to take the lead to figure out how to handle that problem."

Ramping It Up

Director Hunter said he will be calling another meeting "in a couple of weeks and focus on the survey."

He will be contacting other economic development agencies for their surveys. FGC will be sharing its data collection surveys.

"Life-Long Learning"

Dr. Barrett:  "When we talk about workforce I truly do believe in life-long learning. (To Dir. Hunter) You have two degrees, I have four. I was a screw-up when I was in high school and stuff. What I don't see happening, and I think we have to do this -- even for welders. I've lived life with my students for 29 years. Fifteen - twenty years from now if they get injured, that young man with only a welding certification, he has nothing else and has never been taught anything else. It's a problem that we tend to silo. After they do a welding degree, show them that maybe they need an associate's degree in applied technology, so in case something happens they can be diversified. I find this to be an issue, culturally that I'm struggling with here."
(Dr. Barrett came to Florida via NY and Maine)
"I want all these technical - vocational programs to get people real jobs, but I also don't like that we're not teaching them any communication skills; we're not teaching them any writing skills, and that comes back. Businesses say they want some of that, too."

Comments  (to add a comment go here)

On June 1, 2016, a Lake City resident wrote:

Your story gave me chills --- more food franchises and mattress stores were not the economic plus factors people are looking for --- so depressing!


This work by the Columbia County Observer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License.

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