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Editorial | The right direction

By Staff | Nov 3, 2023

Workforce Now has released its 11th annual Southwest Florida regional educational and workforce outcomes study.

This year’s 121-page report compiled by researchers from Florida Gulf Coast University, Florida SouthWestern State College and the FutureMakers Coalition is another deep dive into “demographics, education, occupations, employments gaps and projected job growth” within Lee, Collier, Hendry, Glades and Charlotte counties.

The goal of the coalition that now has 150 partners is to close the higher education gap and retain high-skilled jobs within the region.”

“FutureMakers Coalition aims to transform Southwest Florida’s workforce by increasing the proportion of working-age adults with college degrees, workforce certificates, industry certifications and other high-quality credentials to 55 percent by 2025.”

It hopes to do so across the five counties through “a collective impact initiative working along the cradle-to-career pathway to create a skilled and sustainable workforce pipeline” beginning with early childhood learning and ending with “post-high school credential attainment and career connections.”

“The coalition focuses on systems change to connect untapped workforce with the education and training to fill in-demand jobs by removing attainment barriers and creating a culture of career exploration and aspiration from an early age.”

At the beginning of the initiative in 2013, Southwest Florida was sitting at 39 percent, a gap of 89,518 skilled workers with a lower percentage of skilled workers in each county compared to the state.

By 2021, the region, one of Florida’s fastest-growing, was at 43.7 percent of the goal with Collier County’s skilled workforce sitting at 48.8 percent, less than a point from the state’s overall 49.7 percent, followed by Lee County at 43.5 percent, Charlotte at 40.9 percent, Hendry at 24 percent and Glades at 20.5 percent.

So what does this year’s report tell us about where the jobs are, how much they pay and, perhaps most important, what industries are expected to add jobs in the near future?

First, there are few surprises.

Retail continues to reign king with 446,228 workers reported in 2022, making it Southwest Florida’s largest industry at 17 percent of all workers in the region.

Next up?

“Accommodation and food services was the next largest industry (14.1 percent), followed by construction (13.8 percent) and health care and social assistance (13.8 percent),” the 2023 report summation states.

Retail, accommodations and food services jobs continue to be among the lowest-paying in the region, with average annual wages of $41,500 and $30,946 respectively in 2022.

Some good news for workers?

Wages are up slightly and there are more jobs, including those that pay more.

The average annual wage for all industries in Southwest Florida was $56,735 in 2022, a 6.5 percent bump from 2021, the summation states, finding that construction jobs are “by far” the fastest growing industry with 10,000 new jobs since 2018. This job growth was followed professional and technical services, with 5,977 new jobs; health care and social assistance, with a 4,823 gain; administrative and waste services, at a 4,440 gain, and manufacturing with a 2,627 employment increase.

The report released on Oct. 23, recognizes, though, that in all five counties Southwest Florida continues to lag behind both its stated trained and educated workforce goal of 55 percent but also the state average of 49.7 percent.

The coalition recognizes the challenges ahead, including education disparities, and is implementing a newly funded initiative to address it.

“In 2023, Florida Gulf Coast University and FutureMakers were awarded a $23 million grant from the United States Department of Commerce to formalize and grow sector strategies by offer(ing) training to the untapped workforce. The four target industries for the Equitable Jobs Pipeline project are health care, manufacturing, PK-12 public education, and logistics. More than 1,700 local job seekers from underserved populations who face barriers to education, employment, and career advancement will be able to benefit from this program,” the report states.

Given that the cost of housing, both in terms of price to buy and monthly rent, has escalated well past the overall 6.5 percent bump in overall average wage, adding more skilled-labor jobs is an admirable goal.

Targeting the core factors of education and training to make them more accessible to a broader sector of our population is even more so.

We do have a ways to go.

But the Workforce Now report’s focus on education — and opportunity — points us in the right direction for the economically sustainable labor pool Southwest Florida needs.

Breeze editorial