In a town where dozens of road signs point everyone toward the beach, you could forgive students growing up on the Gulf for being unaware of what’s happening in factories and office parks closer to the interstate—when you live in paradise, it’s easy to get lost gazing at the sunset. That’s why officials at the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce were so excited this spring when they managed to grab teenagers’ attention and turn it toward work done by engineers near their homes. At a Talent4Tomorrow event held in April, the Chamber brought together 95 students curious about the field with about 30 engineers from companies anxious to discover bright minds interested in just that material. Held at the Suncoast Technical College after just two-weeks notice, it was exciting to see that many professionals attend, says newly retired Chamber CEO Steve Queior. “To get them to show up for a three-hour session on two-weeks notice was a feat in itself,” he jokes. But there was something in it for the companies as well. At the end of the event, each firm left with a booklet of one-page resumes for 17- and 18-year-old budding engineers. Expect many of those students to show up in coming summers as interns at Sarasota businesses. “It’s a testimony,” Queior says, “to how much our area engineers have to compete for a pipeline of engineers in general.”

The event served as educational not just for the students but also for anyone in need of a real-world demonstration of challenges connecting employers to a skilled workforce. Paradoxically, entry-level positions in fields requiring certain training and skills can be among the most challenging to fill even when a company is headquartered in a region that boasts universities with international reputations and multiple technical colleges. While the Gulf Coast for decades has served as a retirement playground to the world’s successful businessmen, it’s also home to many young people seeking professional success but who end up looking elsewhere to find it. Can professional networking opportunities and education programs in the region like this Talent4Tomorrow event help reverse that trend?

Venturing Into the Unknown

For many college students in the region, the boundaries of a university campus serve as the edge of the world. Students from Asia and Europe fly around the globe for the chance to study programs like digital animation at Ringling College of Art and Design but never learn what the Gulf Coast offers culturally outside the drive between dorm and airport. The school prides itself, Ringling College President Larry Thompson says, on attracting employers to town to recruit students for work at Pixar, Disney, General Electric and countless other prestigious employers, but what happens to those who don’t get the limited jobs at these dream corporations? “We need students to know what else is here,” he says.

A couple years ago, the college launched the Collaboratory, an initiative to connect students at Ringling with real-world employers to do small but important projects, building relationships with major businesses such as General Motors, but also leading to local synergies—students recruited through the Collaboratory designed the branding for 2016's Sarasota Film Festival, for example. While the top goal of that initiative, Thompson says, was helping students boost their portfolio with professional commissions, it also serves another mission that Ringling has pursued since Thompson’s arrival in 1999: to better connect students with the community at large. “There has been this ‘brain drain,’ and we wanted to see how we could potentially help with that,” Thompson says. Indeed, the college for years has been somewhat of a poster child for brain drain, a term typically used to describe the loss of talent to other communities—or other countries. Students at Ringling hail from 65 different countries of origin, and many head straight back home once they earn a degree, while others have eyes for Hollywood or Silicon Valley. And for Ringling, it’s great to have a reputation abroad and success stories from alums in corporate America, but the school also wants connections with local employers. “We want employers to get connected with our college so that they have the opportunity to recruit and to work with the students we have,” Thompson says.

It was a big deal three years ago when the company that made the most hires of Ringling grads was Sarasota-based BioLucid, which needed digital animators to build medical apps for mobile devices. And graphic designers today can find work in countless fields, whether designing tumblers at Tervis or posters for local events. The school recently connected students with manufacturers at Intertape Polymer Group, one of the top makers of adhesive tape in the world that coincidentally has its US headquarters in Sarasota.The Collaboratory isn’t the only way local schools work to improve cohesion between employers and higher-education pupils. When the Consortium of College on the Creative Coast (C4) launched last year, creating a collaborative mechanism connecting Ringling, New College of Florida, University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee (USFSM) and State College of Florida, Manatee-Sarasota, it also helped expand the horizons for students at each institution. Anyone enrolled at one of those Gulf Coast schools could now cross-register for classes, allowing for someone studying philosophy at New College to now take professional-minded certification courses at SCF and so forth.

“Each college has complimentary assets that can be leveraged for the benefit of the students and the community,” says Laurey Stryker, coordinator for the C4 initiative.  Suddenly, expertise from across the institutions can be made available to the collective 20,000 students enrolled at the schools; Eckerd College in St. Petersburg and Florida State University operations at The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art also participate in the effort. Stryker notes that right now, 90 percent of graduates at both Ringling and New College come from outside the Sarasota-Manatee area. They arrive with no idea about what kind of community assets are available. This can help in producing graduates that are more marketable in the workforce; Stryker notes that hospitality majors at USFSM can now study Chinese at New College without paying visiting student tuition, for example. And this comes as institutions work more collaboratively with schools individually as well. Mote Marine Laboratory has worked hand-in-hand with professors and students at New College on research projects conducted on City Island and manned by marine science majors from the school.

For too long, university officials say, this region has seen out-of-area employers poach the most promising talent, all the while, local employers send recruiters to out-of-area major universities to find graduates who have no attachment to this region. But as efforts grow to connect local institutions and corporations with home-grown wunderkinds, the entry to a talent pipeline might more firmly connect to a promising talent pool. The only trick now will be making sure employers reach into this pipeline.

Get ‘Em While They’re Young

During a September luncheon in Lakewood Ranch, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam raised the notion that the Sunshine State too long served as a place for successful people to finally relax. During the event at Polo Grill, he encouraged members of the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce, Manatee Chamber of Commerce and Lakewood Ranch Business Alliance that Florida no longer could simply serve as a “reward for a life well-lived someplace else.” The Florida native promoted a vision for the state’s future in which people launch careers and thrive. How can that be done? He told SRQ that education is the place to start, because it makes professionals start here as well. “You want to create an educational ecosystem that attracts the brightest young people from all over the world who get their education here,” Putnam says, “and then a high percentage of the ones who graduate in Florida are going to stay in Florida.”

Queior goes a step further, suggesting there is no reason to wait for young people to graduate to bring them into the professional workforce. It’s part of why over the last couple years the Chamber encouraged more employers to launch intern programs serving the Gulf Coast. “These internships are taking local kids and showing them career pathways,” he says. Many students graduate high school certain that greater opportunities can be found elsewhere, but if they can be shown lucrative, satisfying job tracks in a community they already know, how many will stay? “If half the companies in the area would just offer that, we would eliminate the brain drain concern altogether,” Queior suggests.

Mireya Eavey, president of United Way Suncoast and founder of the CareerEdge initiative, says employers sometimes fear devoting too many resources to training college students who won’t stay with a company in the long-term. To encourage employers to take on interns anyway, CareerEdge for the past two years started offering incentive grants, providing up to $1,500 for each paid internship at participating companies. In its first year, 35 internships were funded this way and in 2016, 90 received funding. Conditions include offering interns no less than $10 an hour, with many employers choosing to pay more than that. The program has seen participation by companies as small as medical practices with fewer than 10 employees as well as major manufacturers and professional service companies. “It has served as a carrot,” Eavey says. ”It helps in covering the time an employee is not producing because they are teaching the intern. And what companies have learned is that it is great to have interns.”

Eavey and Queior say many interns at local companies go on to take jobs at the same firms once they finish school. Eavey says many students who gain opportunities through her program attend school elsewhere but become exposed to professional opportunities to come home to when they work with local employers. On the flip side, Queior notes many students attending local colleges and universities who came from out of the region fall in love with jobs here and potentially could stay for years.

Queior admits in the last couple years that workforce development has become a bit of a personal obsession. The long-time Chamber official, in fact, announced that after retiring in October of 2016, he would seek out a chance to become a consultant dealing with just this issue. He knows the issue will only grow in importance. “There is no reason to believe the challenges will lessen anytime soon because we have a huge wave of Baby Boomers retiring,” he says. “We are going to need all hands on deck. That means all ages, particularly young people.”

But he also notes that higher education no longer serves as the sole source of high-value talent. Increasingly, Queior has become concerned that the view of colleges as high-end job training grounds has proved unsustainable. “It isn’t the old days when everybody finishes a four-year degree, goes out and finds a job,” he says. Many graduate with high debt and no waiting employment. And right now, roughly 40 percent of students who start at a four-year school end up dropping out before completing a bachelor’s degree. That system, Queior says, doesn’t work anymore, or at least can’t be relied upon exclusively. “Four-year degrees are great,” he says, “but there is also a demand for folks with a two-year associate’s degree and even one-year certifications.”

Along that line, CareerEdge also encourages apprenticeships in skilled trades in the region. Plumbers, manufacturers, machinists and other trades, business leaders note, are no longer just blue-collar labor—if it was ever fair to use such a label to dismiss the work in the first place. “If someone works with computers as a mechanic, they should know they will rarely get dirty,” Eavey jokes. For the non-college-bound or the college doubtful, there remain plenty of career paths that lead in the direction of high-tech.

Queior suggested at an SRQ SB2 event in September 2016 that many entry-level prospects have no idea how lucrative a career in manufacturing could compare to a field that required a bachelor’s to hang on the office wall. “Once they learn they can make $70,000 a year at a plastic manufacturing fabrication plant, maybe that will change their mind,” he says.

Entrepreneurial Infrastructure

The best job for many young talents may be the ones they create themselves, part of why the Sarasota Chamber has worked hard in the last three years to promote its Young Entrepreneurs Academy (YEA). Barbara Hines, YEA program manager, says the program gives some of tomorrow’s most promising business minds a reason to realize their plans on the Gulf Coast. “At a young age they are starting to form companies already,” Hines says. “It would only make sense, if they have a strong foothold in the community, that they would want to stay and continue their success here.”

The YEA program developed from an effort by the Kauffman Foundation and launched locally in 2015. Taking courses in business law and learning methodologies for launching companies, students ended up working in small teams to bring concepts to fruition. The program in 2016 graduated 18 people and resulted in 10 companies getting incorporated. One grad, 13-year-old Emmarose Larson, now sells vegan goods each month at the Venice Farmer’s Market. Nolan Middle School students Liz and Gabby Sgro have launched the You Glow Bro merchandise line based on lessons learned. And another YEA grad, Madison Dee Miller, will soon meet with tech investors about an augmented reality concept developed through the program.

Hines says the academy offers a chance to keep some of the Gulf Coast’s brightest young talents in the region by showing their ability to create jobs, not just seek them out elsewhere. Which doesn’t mention the fact that plenty of entrepreneurs already in action look toward expansion all the time. Jeff Hazelton, founder of BioLucid, spent years building his company but has been busy finding ways to expand every year; health tech giant Sharecare acquired that company in October and will continue to run a Sarasota office, which Hazelton will head up. Operating now as the Sharecare Reality Lab, the office will explore a long obsession of Hazelton’s—virtual reality—that just now seems to be carving out a lucrative spot in the marketplace. The Sarasota entrepreneur says he constantly needs technically adept and software-savvy employees, and since he chose Sarasota as his place of work, he prefers to hire local talent. “We always need new, fresh blood,” he says. “We’ve recently gotten some talented staff from Ringling, and I am always looking for more.”

And other business programs want to make sure that when professionals do choose to settle on the Suncoast, they continue to thrive. Mimi Cirbusova, coordinator for the Sarasota Young Professionals Group (YPG), has helped oversee continued expansion of programs through a variety of Talent4Tomorrow events. Just in October, professionals met with students at North Port High School to help fill out applications for financial assistance for college. YPG also holds networking events so young professionals can speak about career opportunities with one another and create a support system in which all will thrive. A summit was held in August, Cirbusova says, to explore ways to improve professional development offerings in the region. “It’s all about how we can grow as leaders in the community,” she says. When local workers grow into leaders of the business community, it only creates a more organic economy, one where professionals’ roots and loyalties run deep within the region.

Field of Study

Tammie Sweet, director of GrowFL, told business leaders at an SRQ Media-sponsored event in September that the Bradenton-North Port-Sarasota metropolitan area in 2015 saw the fifth highest number of new jobs created, placing the market around 60th in the nation, an astonishing feat for a medium-sized community. Her agency, which started with a pilot program in Sarasota six years ago and grew into a statewide effort, notes most new jobs in the region come from the expansion of successful companies already operating in an area. “With what Sarasota has been able to build in particular, knowing that, people will come here,” she suggests.

So what type of jobs should be created? That remains a bit controversial. Peter Straw, executive director of the Sarasota Manatee Manufacturers Association, says the region only now has started to truly diversify its economy. Young professionals should see the possibilities in business beyond tourism and development today, he notes, and will come to recognize that clean, high-tech manufacturing possibilities around Port Manatee and Interstate-75 will reward loyal employees. “And with the graying of our workforce across the country, that has created a burning need for certain skills,” Straw says. “We have to develop our own talent pipeline.”

But Sarasota County Economic Development Director Jeff Maultsby hopes to see more college-degree required professions in the region. Building economic opportunities outside construction and hotels should also mean an increase in entry-level positions for the highly educated. But demographics in the region continue to shift in the wrong direction. “We are getting less young, if I can put it that way,” Maultsby says. “Our 25- to 34-year-olds are leaving us. Unfortunately, the ones that are remaining are less educated. Out of our top 30 industries, only two of them require a four-year degree. We’ve got to change that.”

So where to go from here? Anything that makes young professionals stay. From affordable housing to noise ordinance fights to lack of employment, the Gulf Coast too often develops a reputation as a place to sit out the rest of life rather than one to jumpstart adulthood, but business leaders agree that the biggest issue is one of information. Jobs do exist, and more get created everyday that should well serve a younger population. The only trick no one has mastered is convincing young professionals to take advantage of the opportunities already here and to help create new ones for tomorrow.