Florida legislators hope to break a proverbial curse hanging over families in some of the state’s most economically challenged communities by making sure the next generation is ready to enter the local workforce.
Gov. Ron DeSantis proclaimed September as Workforce Development Month in Florida to recognize collaborative efforts between the governor’s office, state agencies and workforce leaders with the goal to make Florida the best state in the nation for workforce education by 2030.
“This is our opportunity to change a lot of this and break some cycles and develop the economy in our area,” said Shane Abbott, the incoming Florida House of Representatives District 5 candidate.
Abbott will represent Holmes, Washington, Walton, Jackson and part of Bay counties in November. Workforce development among high school seniors is one of the most prominent things on his mind.
“What I want to accomplish is to bring an interactive classroom setting in the high schools so we can start giving kids who ride yellow school buses the opportunity to do one of two things,” Abbott said. “If they are capable of it, I would love for them to be able to graduate high school with an A.A. degree. But more importantly, I want a lot of these children to be able to graduate high school and have the opportunity to earn workforce certifications in stuff like electrical, plumbing, CDLs, welding, those types of things.”
Abbott said this would allow recent graduates to start out at jobs paying higher at $20 to $25 per hour. In the longer term, developing a stronger workforce inside of high schools would attract more outside industry.
He hopes another long-term positive effect would be breaking generational cycles shaped by financial struggle.
According to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the national poverty guideline for a household of four is $27,750. In Holmes County, 21.4 percent of the population lived below the poverty line in 2020. That’s higher than the state rate of 13.3 percent that same year. In Washington County, that number is 23.8 percent.
Much of the workforce education for Washington and Holmes, particularly for high schoolers, goes on at Florida Panhandle Technical College (FPTC).
“The COVID situation on the heels of Hurricane Michael had a negative impact on enrollment,” said FPTC Director Larry Moore.
Moore said about 80 students - over a quarter of students enrolled at FPTC - are dual enrolled high schoolers with a majority of them coming from Chipley and Vernon High Schools and some from Bonifay. A few students commute from counties further away such as Calhoun and Liberty.
Moore said one thing that has helped FPTC boost enrollment is having career counselor Jennifer Kincaid who works directly with Washington County high school students.
“She has really put a lot of effort into encouraging students as well as letting students know what is available here on campus and other opportunities,” Moore said.
Moore said one thing that hurts the completion rate at the school is that some fields are in such high demand that students get job offers before they finish some programs.
“Employers are recruiting them before they even finish the program,” Moore said. “Students in medical programs have jobs waiting for them when they get out.”
Moore said FPTC is a great place to at least start a career even if it is not what the student plans to do for the rest of their working life.
High schoolers must be 16 years of age, have a minimum of a 2.0 unweighted GPA, and meet other requirements regarding attendance and discipline to be dually enrolled.
District 5 State Rep. Brad Drake trusts Abbott’s instincts on what rural Florida communities need to flourish.
“Gov. Ron DeSantis will have a good working partner in the Florida House because Shane agrees with what our Governor is doing to make Florida the best place to live, work and raise a family,” Drake said. “As time moves on, I know that we will all be proud of the successes that will come our way.”
Workforce Development Month is touted as a time to celebrate the progress made towards strengthening workforce education opportunities for Floridians.
“Not every kid is supposed to go to college and we have to recognize that,” Abbott said. “A lot of students once they graduate high school, they won’t set foot in another classroom.”
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