Leading Question

By Hannah Wallace October 31, 2004

Dr. Gary Norris, Sarasota schools superintendent, is a product of a liberal arts education. A music major at Bethany College in Kansas, he sang his way to a B.A. and began teaching vocal music in the classroom. But Norris, like many liberal arts graduates who received degrees in such fields as philosophy, anthropology and political science, eventually found himself in a career that deals with practical, bottom-line issues. At a recent breakfast meeting of the Sarasota County Economic Development Corporation, he told the crowd that the liberal arts aren't answering today's business needs and a traditional college degree is no longer a guaranteed ticket to success.

The need for college-educated professionals such as doctors, lawyers, architects and teachers has remained constant for the last 50 years at 20 percent of the workforce, Norris says. But the need for skilled and unskilled workers has changed dramatically. In 1950, only 20 percent of workers were skilled (plumbers, electricians and railroad engineers) and 60 percent were unskilled (farmers, laborers and factory workers). Now the ratio is almost the opposite. Today 65 percent of the workforce needs special skills, Norris says-workers such as physical and respiratory therapists, computer technicians, dental hygienists, graphic designers and auto technicians. Many skilled workers only need one to two years beyond high school before they seek employment. And only15 percent of today's workforce needs are in the unskilled category.

Norris says the education system needs to reflect this new reality. In the works are a new Sarasota County technical high school, slated to open about 2008; and a new approach to education called "applied learning," where 60 to 70 percent of Sarasota public high school students combine academics with work in a 50/50 ratio.

But is Sarasota, a community that prides itself on high college board scores and a school for the academically gifted, ready for such a shift? Norris knows it will be a challenge. "We intend to keep what we're already doing," he says. "We're not de-emphasizing education for our academically talented students." That being said, Norris says the feedback he's getting from the community is positive: "People aren't only receptive, they've been clamoring for this type of education for quite some time."

Nick Marazita, the president of Venice's Sunset Mold & Prototype, Inc., is one of them. His company uses sophisticated computer imaging to design and make molds for various national and local companies such as PGT and Tervis Tumbler. Products range from molds for plastic tumblers to windshield wiper covers, life vest pulls, and a plastic holster that fits on the thighs of U.S. soldiers in Iraq.

Marazita, who purchased the company in 2004 after a long engineering career with huge corporations all over the world, says manufacturing is a far cry from the smoke stack industries in the north. So much is automated and computerized now, he says, and requires excellent math skills. His employees, he insists, "can do trigonometry better than I can. We do not have laborers here. My employees are highly skilled trades people."

Marazita would like to see the local schools establish "good old-fashioned apprenticeships" so he can train young people for the type of skilled machinists' jobs he has available since skilled labor is difficult to find. Manufacturing jobs can pay well, he adds. His employees' average wage is $44,000, and he pays 100 percent of their benefits. Joe Talon, 27, a computer numerical control (CNC) programmer at Sunset Mold, spent his last two years in high school in a vo-tech program in Maine, apprenticing for different shops to learn the machinist trade. His apprenticeships were invaluable, eventually leading to Sunset Mold, programming computers that tell machines which tools to use and exactly how to cut the steel molds.

"Not everyone has to go to college," Marazita says. "Up north, you could make more money as an electrician than an MBA."

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