The top 20 fastest-growing occupations in the country for 2000-2010 include not even one blue-collar occupation, says the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics. Southwest Florida statistics tell much the same story. The highest demand jobs are and will be in information technology and health care fields, and most of them typically require some level of post-secondary education.

These projections, which were published in 2003 as part of the Suncoast Workforce Board's "21st Century Workforce Study," represent a remarkable shift in our area's long-term workforce needs. Instead of yesterday's parts assemblers, for example, companies poised for the future are seeking out computer software engineers to write programs that will run robotic assembly lines, systems specialists to build the equipment, and technicians to operate and maintain it.

Because many of these new-age careers did not even exist 10 years ago, training resources can be limited, leaving employers with the challenge of recruiting more and more high-skilled workers from a small pool of qualified candidates.

The Suncoast Workforce Board, Inc., is Sarasota and Manatee counties' division of the state of Florida's labor initiative called Workforce Florida, Inc. The board has introduced the High Skills/High Wages Council to offer employers programs and funds for advanced training and continuing education for their employees.

"We are very plugged in to our area's key economic developers, from all sectors of business, education and government," says Mary Helen Kress, executive director of the Suncoast Workforce Board. "And through them we know our area already has a great deal of high-skills, high-wages jobs and the numbers are continuing to increase. Contrary to some other parts of the country, our local economy is growing, particularly in manufacturing, as employers are choosing not to take their companies oversees, but grow them right here on the Suncoast."

The Suncoast Workforce Board offers many programs that help Manatee and Sarasota county residents enter, remain in and advance in the workplace. These programs are brought to the public through Jobs Etc. Employment and Training Centers. "We do a lot of ESOL classes (English for Speakers of Other Languages) and likewise, conversational Spanish classes for English-speaking managers," says Robin Adams, account executive for Jobs Etc.

Three Jobs Etc. facilities service the area: 1112 Manatee Ave. E. in Bradenton, 3660 Washington Blvd. in Sarasota, and 897 E. Venice Ave. in Venice. Last year, the Suncoast Workforce Board assisted 11 local companies with HS/HW funding to upgrade the training and/or certifications for 184 employees.

"The High-Skills/ High Wages program worked very well for us," says Wendy Sautelle, vice president of client relations for Billing Network, a medical billing company in Sarasota with about 20 employees. "In our field, we must acquire a series of specialized certifications in order to advance our careers. Through Jobs Etc., we were connected with the Employed Worker Training (EWT) program, where we could customize the training for our employees and prepare them to sit for exams." With this program, employers pay 50 percent of the cost for training at a local, approved educational institute. "Ten of us took the 12-week course at Keiser College and all of us passed to receive our billing and coding specialist certification," Sautelle says.

The Employed Worker Training program at Jobs Etc. serves any industry seeking short-term training for its employees. Grant money is available to employees on a first-come, first-served basis through local government funding. The goal of the program is to serve 75 employed workers and up to 50 unemployed workers with training assistance, says Martha Robinson, communications coordinator for the Suncoast Workforce Board.

Incumbent Worker Training (IWT) is another High Skills/High Wages program. To qualify, companies must be considered value-added by the state, or actively exporting goods and services outside of Florida. These companies are given special consideration for grant money because they bring fresh dollars into the state, says Robinson. Some of these targeted industries include manufacturing, finance, insurance carriers, information industries, and scientific and technical services. IWT funding requires employers to pay half of the training expenses.

Companies with training needs for their high-skills, high-wage positions can find out more about Employed Worker Training or Incumbent Worker Training funds by calling Robin Adams at (941) 358-4200, extension 152. Information can also by found by visiting www.swdb.org.ย 

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