Where the Jobs Are

Finding work and workers in Sarasota and Manatee.

By Hannah Wallace March 30, 2015

by Hannah Wallace


WHEN TYLER CRUIKSHANK NEEDED A JOB, Manatee Technical College was the answer. The 29-year-old Army veteran stumbled across a welding class last year while visiting a friend at the school, and a little research revealed promising opportunities for skilled welders in the area. In fact, MTC’s program had been created specifically for local companies expressing a need for these workers. Not only does the program train Cruikshank for a number of welding certifications, it’s also connected him with those local companies that are hiring.


Now, months before graduating, Cruikshank attends school once a week and works the other four days―10 hours a day―for Pierce Manufacturing, a builder of commercial vehicles in Bradenton. Cruikshank welds alongside people who’ve worked at Pierce for 30 years, and he looks forward to regular raises, further training and advanced certifications as he goes. “Everything that deals with metal needs welders,” he says.


Opportunities for workers like Cruikshank are the best they’ve been in a decade. Sarasota and Manatee unemployment rates hover between 4.9 percent and 5.1 percent―about .5 percent lower than a year ago. As employers are now actively seeking out workers, the employment growth rate in the 941 region was 5.4 percent in 2014, compared to 2.3 percent statewide. Sarasota and Manatee also remain attractive to employers. “We have a skilled workforce, ample quality educational facilities and a lifestyle environment that is appealing to employers relocating to our area,” says Jen Bartolone of CareerSource Suncoast, which held 77 job fairs for 190 positions in the last year.


These days in Southwest Florida, connecting growing industries with qualified workers is Job One.


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The traditional Southwest Florida powerhouses of health care, retail and hospitality remain at the top of the list, accounting for more than a third of the nearly 400,000 total jobs in the area.


The region’s aging demographics have kept health care a strong sector and, with 42,500 employees, is ranked our No. 1 employer. Six months ago, Nashville-based hospital management firm HCA Healthcare, whose local facilities include Doctors Hospital of Sarasota and Blake Medical Center, led all local hiring with 225 advertised job openings here―from RNs to medical assistants.


Retail represents the second-largest employer in the region, with nearly 40,000 positions in the second quarter of 2014. Add to that figure The Mall at UTC, which added 2,000 full-time positions when it opened in October 2014. That many hires at once strains the retail job market, but the region’s growing affluence and strong tourism numbers make retailers feel optimistic about the near future.


The No. 3 sector is hospitality (mostly hotel and restaurant businesses, but also event planners and cultural and recreational venues), which accounts for 30,522 local jobs. The recovering economy means people throughout the country and world are vacationing again and traveling here in droves. Visit Sarasota County reported 929,000 visitors in 2014, resulting in $1.5 billion economic impact―a 10.4 percent improvement over 2013. In Manatee, where tourism accounts for one-sixth of jobs, 610,000 visitors were recorded by the convention and visitors bureau, a 7.1 percent increase from the previous year.


That tourism growth, combined with the high rates of turnover in hospitality and retail, means consistent job openings and a struggle to fill them. Says Bartolone, “Lower wages, the abundance of part-time positions as well as seasonality make it difficult to find and retain employees [in these industries].”




Sarasota and Manatee counties combined for a 4 percent population increase from 2010 to 2013, according to the U.S. Census. That influx of new residents―many of them wealthy―has created new demand for skilled workers in industries like residential construction.


The emergence of tower cranes on the downtown Sarasota skyline is evidence that this industry will represent a large percentage of the job market for the next few years. In downtown alone, there are 31 new projects underway or prepped to begin, accounting for more than 3,700 units (condos, apartments and hotel rooms) at a cost of $500 million.


In February, the Tampa Bay Times reported a statewide shortage of construction workers to fill Florida’s rebounding building industry. University of Central Florida economist Sean Snaith calls those holes “a hangover of the recession. Approximately 341,000 jobs were lost in Florida in construction. Those people didn’t just get put in storage. They left the area.” And though the industry has turned around, that hasn’t translated into workers. “Since there weren’t many jobs available [during the recession], younger generations didn’t even consider a career in construction,” says Bartolone of CareerSource.




Similarly, manufacturing has a growing need for skilled workers. Manufacturing is a particular focus for Sharon Hillstrom, CEO of the Bradenton Area Economic Development Corporation, who estimates that her organization has worked with more than 60 companies in the last six years. “The vast majority were manufacturers,” she says. Those new Manatee-based manufacturers alone are projected to create 3,500 jobs through 2021.


With the strength of the existing health care industry, biotech and medical device manufacturing companies are a natural fit. But other manufacturers have been lured here by factors like lifestyle and the willingness of local educational organizations to train workers, especially skilled workers.


“Imagine an hourglass,” says Peter Straw, executive director of the Sarasota Manatee Area Manufacturers Association: “Ample supply at the top and bottom; constriction at the center. That sums up the manufacturing workforce.”


The same is true across most any industry. There are lots of people looking for upper-level management positions, and, of course, an ample supply of off-the-street, entry-level workers, but fewer people to fill the middle-tier, skilled labor positions. That’s where the jobs are.


Snaith says many young people would do better to skip the traditional college path to white-collar jobs. “There are other opportunities to have fulfilling careers that don’t require a four-year degree,” he says. “You can’t outsource welding. You can’t outsource plumbing. There’s [job] security there.” For example, welding jobs throughout the region are expected to grow by 27 percent in the next eight years. The current mean wage for a welder in Sarasota-Manatee is $17.40 per hour, according to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.


Besides, companies moving here, especially those manufacturing companies so courted by the EDCs, are likely to already have their management teams with them, says Straw. It’s the skilled tradesmen that they’ll demand of the local workforce.




Today all U.S. communities want a high-tech economy that will bring in higher wages. Hence the national focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) that has trickled down into grade school preparation. But in this region, which is not a Silicon Valley with legions of 20-something techies writing code and developing apps, STEM has another application for middle and high school students. “STEM teachers are best suited to deliver the MSC [Manufacturing Skills Certification] curriculum,” says Straw.


But high-wage positions outside of STEM-related fields are available. Unfortunately, our region’s high-wage jobs do not pay as much compared to their national counterparts. Data analyzed by University of Michigan’s Donald Grimes shows that, despite being competitive in lower-wage industries like retail and residential construction, Sarasota falls well behind national pay averages in the highest-wage industries, including banking, computer services and law. Local law offices, for example, pay an average annual salary of $73,311, compared to $87,796 nationally.


In our local economy, middle-of-the-spectrum positions pay at or near the national average in skilled industries like health care, manufacturing and, perhaps most of all, construction and contracting and have the most openings. New single-family general contractors here pay $56,224, compared to $48,516 nationally.




And yet, despite all the good news, 20,000 local residents are still looking for work. “More time and effort must be spent when seeking a job that’s the right fit,” says Bartolone. “And some employers have several levels that a candidate must go through. This can take weeks, and some applicants can’t wait that long, so they take another job.” Those missed connections can keep skilled workers in unskilled jobs.


Our secondary and post-secondary educational institutions are matching companies with skilled workers by developing programs designed specifically to create a workforce in industries where jobs are most needed, and to prepare for future demands.


Additionally, the skilled trades workforce is “graying,” with fewer skilled candidates behind them to pick up the slack. “Those positions will need to be filled,” says Hillstrom. “We need to be acutely aware of that.” Training in an in-demand position is virtually a guaranteed investment for future job success. “We haven’t trained a machinist in so long, a good tool-and-die guy in this town could write his own ticket,” says Straw.


In 2009, State College of Florida began offering its four-year nursing degree, a program that was created when local hospitals pointed out an existing need for nurses.


Last year, the Bradenton Area EDC negotiated a partnership between Manatee Technical College and Air Products, a Pennsylvania-based company that needed more than 100 trained welders to open a new Palmetto manufacturing site. With a grant from CareerEdge, MTC created a welding program that produced workers that “exceeded Air Products’ expectations,” says Hillstrom. ■


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Highest projected growth in Sarasota-Manatee over the next six years (according to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity,


■ Specialty trade contracting (masons, plumbers, electricians, etc.)

■ General construction

■ Furniture production/retail

■ Civil engineering construction

■ Management




These industries are in decline locally:


■ Agriculture

■ Publishing (reporters, correspondents, editors)

■ Federal government




Health care 42,501 jobs

Retail 39,485 jobs

Hospitality 30,522 jobs

Construction 18,324 jobs

Business services 17,288 jobs

Manufacturing 15,016 jobs

Education 14,988 jobs




35-40% - Projected growth of construction-industry skilled trades positions in the next eight years.




27% - Expected increase in welding positions in Sarasota-Manatee by 2022 (16% statewide).


“It’s not unusual that I hear of welders making six-figure salaries.”

—Economist Sean Snaith




Most job postings for Sarasota-Manatee on, from September 2014 – February 2015


Business services (administrative support, HR, clerical) 854

Agriculture* 746

Health care 412

Hospitality 302

Retail 265


*Influenced by winter growing seasons for oranges, strawberries, etc.


SARASOTA-MANATEE TOTAL WORKFORCE 396,882 (as of December 2014)






Sarasota-Manatee 5.4%

Florida 3%

U.S. 2.1%




Retail, food service, landscapers, residential real estate agents and registered nurses will remain among the area’s largest employers and those with the greatest number of job openings, according to CareerSource Suncoast.




These organizations connect local workers with the companies that need them.


CareerSource Suncoast,

CareerEdge Funders Collaborative,

Bradenton Area Economic Development Corporation,

The Economic Development Corporation of Sarasota County,




Full-service restaurant

Sarasota $20,249

U.S. $18,091


New single-family general contractor

Sarasota $56,224

U.S. $48,516


Law offices

Sarasota $73,311

U.S. $87,796


SOURCE: Bureau of Labor Statistics Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages. Compiled and analyzed by Donald Grimes, University of Michigan.




Local educational institutions partner with economic development organizations, and with companies directly, to provide skilled workers in industries that need them.


State College of Florida,

The region’s first and largest public college includes numerous associate degrees and noncredit workforce training, in addition to four-year bachelor’s degrees.


Suncoast Technical College,

Focuses on meeting changing workforce needs in the community with programs in agriculture, manufacturing, health care, hospitality and business.


Keiser University,

Career-focused education; 62 percent of students graduate in STEM or health care fields.


Everglades University,

Adult education focused on profession-specific skills.



Lakewood Ranch campus for osteopathic medicine, including programs for physicians, pharmacists and dentists.


Ringling College of Art and Design,

Nationally lauded school includes high-tech digital programs.


New College of Florida,

Honors college consistently ranked among the nation’s best public schools.


FSU College of Medicine,

Producing physicians and scientists for 21st-century medical practices, hospitals and research.


Manatee Technical College,

More than 50 career preparation programs, including culinary, HVAC and health services.


Argosy University,

Offers health, psychology, education and business studies, in addition to liberal arts.


USF Sarasota-Manatee,

Four-year college with business and hospitality programs.

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