It’s becoming widely recognized that our growing economy is a mixed blessing.  It can create thousands of jobs for which there doesn’t appear to be enough skilled workers.

It’s a national problem, as evidenced by the recent Presidential Executive Order which committed companies and trade groups to offer millions of occupational training programs. Locally, it’s also a problem important to residents of the Daniels Corridor and South Fort Myers.

In the past, business owners could hire entry-level people, fresh out of school or changing careers, and train them with the assumption they would stick around long enough to pay off the investment in their training. Not so much today. Training costs have risen, more specialized knowledge is needed. And the employable pool is not keeping up with the demand for skills.

Pamela Johnson, Interim Director of the Lee County Economic Development Department confirmed that jobs in our area are going unfilled because “there are not people qualified to fill them.” The Lee County Economic Development Department is not sitting on its hands, however, when it comes to solving the problem.

In addition to having wooed and won Hertz Rental Cars corporate headquarters under Johnson’s predecessor, with many jobs being added to the community, Johnson points to collaborative community efforts by organizations such as the FutureMakers Coalition to provide information, assistance and encouragement to individuals desiring to enter the workforce from the academic cocoon or looking to change to career paths that are personally fulfilling, productive and valuable to the community and commerce.

The FutureMakers Coalition states its goal as, “To transform the (local) workforce by increasing the number of degrees, certifications and other high quality credentials to 55% by 2025.”

According to Johnson, “The importance of this goal is accentuated by the reality that major corporations are reluctant to move to areas without in-place qualified work forces.” She points to the fact that only 40% of Hertz employees elected to relocate from New York and New Jersey to Southwest Florida when Hertz decided to move here. This is a wonderful place to live but, without a pool of educated, trained and ambitious workers, few corporate managers are willing to invest in moving to a place that lacks sufficient qualified workers.

To accomplish their challenging goal, the FutureMakers Coalition taps into a successful regional collaboration launched in 2013 to increase the number of graduating high school students completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and take advantage of more than $3 billion in unclaimed federal college and post-secondary school assistance.

A local collaborator is the Southwest Florida Community Foundation (SWFLCF), a Fort Myers-based organization dedicated to supporting community development.

Tessa LeSage, who coordinates Southwest Florida Community Foundation’s collaboration with FutureMakers, sees FutureMakers as a regional call to action. FutureMakers and Southwest Florida Community Foundation joined to put together a five-county group of education, civic, business and government leaders to provide funding for public service announcements, scholarships and development of the Grad App, a comprehensive mobile application for information about career opportunities, skills and education requirements for a variety of careers, links to jobs, education-planning resources, available scholarships and financial aid, money management and more.

LeSage confirmed Johnson’s observations about the need to have a qualified workforce already in place. “We can’t import qualified workers,” she stated. “We must work with the population that is already here.”

The truth of this observation is apparent when one considers qualified workers won’t move to a place without jobs to support them. And, without the qualified workers, the employers will locate elsewhere.

The FutureMakers Coalition created a student support network for one-on-one and group mentoring, FAFSA workshops, financial-aid application support and career coaching. An early promoter was local athletic hero, Sherwood Brown, former shooting guard for Florida Gulf Coast University’s 2013 NCAA Sweet 16 men’s basketball team, aka “Dunk City.”

LeSage says that the larger objective and the 55%-by-2025 goal require special attention to ethnic minorities and cohorts where poverty prevails. She maintains that without these untrained and underprivileged populations, the desired achievement is both unfair and unreasonably hindered. Pilot programs that target low income adults without work experience in these cohorts allow for monitoring to determine what ideas and efforts work most effectively.

Because of the success in increasing FAFSA completion, many students discovered that college attendance they once thought personally unattainable was, in fact, open to them.

This demonstration of regional success and emphasis on post-secondary educational attainment, captured the attention of the Lumina Foundation, an independent, private foundation in Indianapolis committed to making opportunities for learning beyond high school available to all. Lumina envisions a system that is easy to navigate, delivers fair results, and meets the nation’s need for talent through a broad range of credentials.

Lumina Foundation is the nation’s largest private foundation focused solely on increasing Americans’ success in higher education.

As a result of its success, Southwest Florida, including Lee, Collier, Charlotte, Glades and Hendry counties, was admitted into an elite group of similar programs in 75 other communities throughout the country.

Backing of the FutureMakers Coalition includes investments from Lumina Foundation, Richard M. Schulze Family Foundation, The RocketLounge, HyperTeam USA Business and IT Consulting, Arthrex, Partners in Education of Hendry County, Florida Philanthropic Network and The Kresge Foundation.

In addition, Jason’s Dell and it’s parent, WilRock Group, Promotional Incentives, Bill Rogers Productions, Hodges University, Domino’s, Gravina, Smith, Matte and Arnold, Lamar Advertising Company, Scott Fischer Enterprises, Keiser University, Pushing the Envelope Marketing and Public Relations, and UnMazed provide in-kind support, while expertise is contributed by ADP Workforce Now, Hodges University, Florida SouthWestern State College, Florida Gulf Coast University, Learning In Motion Tutoring and College Advisory Services and Florida College Access Network.

If statistics are accurate that small businesses are the source of most new jobs, the presence of small businesses on the list of supporters is encouraging. LeSage reports that pilot programs directed at small businesses are getting a special push, again to determine the most effective use of Coalition resources.

Of course, the wellspring of new business formation is entrepreneurship. Johnson called attention to efforts to nurture entrepreneurial skills such as those by SCORE, that can lead to more opportunities as successful entrepreneurs create many more new jobs to fill.

The Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE) is the nation’s largest network of volunteer, expert business mentors, with more than 10,000 volunteers in 300 Chapters.

As a resource partner of the US Small Business Administration (SBA), SCORE has helped more than ten million entrepreneurs through free mentoring, workshops and educational resources since 1964. Southwest Florida SCORE chapters exist and operate in Fort Myers, Naples, Port Charlotte and Manasota.

Retired executives volunteer to counsel beginning entrepreneurs on business disciplines that are necessary to succeed as a business owner/operator. A limitation of SCORE locally was that volunteers tended disproportionately to be recent part-time residents. That makes it difficult to schedule sessions in the summers, when those with need are available and those with expertise tend to be away on extended vacations. Nevertheless, SCORE resources are valuable if you are starting a new business.

Stepping in to also fill the mentoring need has been Fusion Pointe, a group organized to create additional opportunities in the local economic development community to work with venture developers by offering knowledge, connections and potential sources of capital needed for success.

Fusion Pointe believes that communities that foster successful startups also foster increased economic vitality in wealth and jobs. Their website points out that these startups “are seven times more likely to raise investment capital and more than three times more likely to grow customer bases if they have helpful mentors.”

Fusion Pointe provides those mentors, claiming, “Our Venture Mentoring Program was developed in partnership with JumpStart Inc., a best-in-class, nationally recognized non-profit based in Cleveland, Ohio who has developed and led programs that have fueled millions of dollars of investment and created thousands of jobs in communities across the United States.

Our mentoring program is specifically tailored for today’s fast-paced, fiercely competitive global startup environment. Companies entering the program receive anywhere from one to four mentors, depending on their needs. This approach provides entrepreneurs with advice and critical experience in areas such as sales, marketing, venture capital fundraising, board formation/management and human resources.”

As important as formal mentoring is, the individual is the most important component in success. An example of local school-to-entrepreneurial success is Ben Salokar, coincidentally the son of Corridor’s publisher.

After completing high school in Southwest Florida, where he discovered a passion for auto mechanics, he attend a two-year technical training course at Nashville (TN) Auto Diesel College. With Certification as a Master ASE and an Associates Degree in diesel engineering, he returned to Fort Myers.

Shortly thereafter he realized that his calling was to operate his own auto maintenance business. That led to a 2,500-square-foot, five-bay garage on Fort Myers Beach. His two-year-old B&B Auto Maintenance business now supports Salokar, his wife and children, plus two full-time employees. Living proof of the leverage of entrepreneurship and, on a larger scale, the fruit of an aggressive, collaborative approach to making the future.