A local manufacturing pipeline of skilled workers is being set up to replace thousands of baby boomers expected to retire
Justin Kite has a decal on the back of his pickup truck that says “Dirty Hands, Clean Money.”
The Molino native developed his work ethic operating tractors and hay balers on his family’s farm. At 16, the then-Northview High School student worked after school operating a feed store’s bagging machine.
Today, Kite is a machine operator at Plastic Coated Papers, Inc., in Cantonment, and is following in his family’s manufacturing footsteps. His father and uncle are both maintenance technicians while his grandfather and another uncle are welders and pipe fitters.
“My family has always worked in manufacturing,” he said. “I’ve seen what kind of living they can make. I’ve always liked the industrial setting so that’s what pretty much drew me to it.”
Before graduating from Northview in 2015, Kite earned a MSSC-CPT, which is the common reference for the Certified Production Technician certification from the Manufacturing Skill Standards Council.
Northwest Florida manufacturers hope those seven letters, which serve as the first step to more advanced certifications and a myriad of potential career paths, will help plug a hole when the current workforce retires.
“The shortage is just beginning,” said Cindy Anderson, executive director of the ten-county Northwest Florida Manufacturers Council. “But the anticipation over the next four years is that there will be approximately 5,000 positions that cannot be filled with skilled workers.”
It is projected that by 2025, the United States will need to fill 3.4 million manufacturing jobs, but will face a two million shortage due to baby boomer retirement, said Leo Reddy, MSSC chairman and CEO. He addressed the NWFMC at its general membership meeting Wednesday morning.
“We have a good idea of where we will find 1.4 million of those,” he said. “But we don’t have any idea where we will find the other two million.”
Three years ago, the NWFMC formed in preparation of that baby boomer exodus. It used $1.5 million from the state legislature to set up a total of 10 career academies across the 10 county area. Five are manufacturing and five are in related fields like construction and welding, for example.
Employers know what they are getting when someone has passed the four-part CPT exam, said Steven Harrell, curriculum specialist in the workforce education for Escambia County School District.
“This is a person who knows how to be safe, understands precision processes and understands maintenance,” Harrell said.
He renovated the wood shop at Pensacola High School into the Automation and Production Technology Academy.
The room with a bare concrete floor where lathes and table saws once called home now has a computer lab in one quarter of the space. The rest is an “industrial work space” where several educational work stations sit on an epoxy-coated floor.
The computers, software and learning stations were funded with $120,000 worth of grants and other funding sources. About $20,000 was spent on software that simulates the learning stations where students practice with precision measurement tools, mechanical drive systems, applied electrical controls, AC/DC electrical systems and pneumatic instrumentation.
Student learn theory on the computers then practice what they’ve learned at the hands-on learning stations.
PHS senior Kadarrious Lewis is one of three who will sit for the fourth and final CPT exam in early May.
“I know if I get this certification, it is a step in the door of manufacturing,” he said
The manufacturing academy instructor at PHS is John McDaniel, who said the career technical education programs can be life changers for students.
“The reality is, we have a really high high school dropout rate,” he said. “Instead of dropping out, (students) can make $15 or $16 an hour straight out of high school.”
Educators are quick to point out that the career academies are for all students with varying paths. They can be the first step on a road that leads to a master’s degree in mechanical engineering, for example. Or they can be the precursor to a vocational school like the George Stone Technical Center.
“It’s great to produce an engineer,” Harrell said. “But if I can produce an engineer with calluses on his hands, even better.”
Kite is the first to earn a CPT certification in a manufacturing career academy in Escambia County. Northview was the pilot and began in August 2014. The other academies began in August 2015.
Local manufacturers hope he is the first trickle in a torrent of skilled workers able to take up entry level positions.
“Justin is a guy with grit. He’ll do well in whatever he wants to do,” Harrell said. “I wish I had 100 just like him.”