Think Tank discusses Nassau business concerns

January 23, 2018

By: John Schaffner, For the Fernandina Beach News-Leader


Eighty percent of local companies are looking to hire employees in the next 12 months, according to a recent study conducted by the Nassau County Economic Development Board. The key issues could be: Is the trained workforce available locally? And how can businesses recruit and retain those workers?

As a follow-up to the survey, the NCEDB conducted the first of a planned monthly series of “Workforce Think Tank” meetings on Jan. 11 with representatives of the business community – both large and small employers – at the Yulee campus of Florida State College at Jacksonville.

The recent survey served as a launching point for a free-flowing discussion of measures that Nassau County businesses – from Traders Hill Farm in Hilliard to The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island and from Fast Signs in Fernandina Beach to Rayonier’s Wildlight in Yulee – are taking to recruit and retain a quality workforce.

The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island’s human resources representative, Kate Eames, described how her company each year has to bring in 25 international culinary interns on limited-time visas because the company can’t locally source trained workers.

Kathy Curry, who joined Traders Hill Farm in Hilliard after working in human resources at much larger companies, described the new pay and benefits programs she has implemented to provide a means to recruit and retain quality workers, along with other perks such as a monthly employee appreciation luncheon.

Several of those attending the “think tank” meeting stated that the lack of affordable housing on Amelia Island and in Yulee is a major problem in recruiting and retaining employees. They said even middle managers are unable to find affordable and suitable close-in housing, and commuting daily from Jacksonville or beyond gets “unbearable.”

“Workforce development used to be a secondary role of the agency, but it now is a primary role,” NCEDB Executive Director Laura DiBella told the News-Leader in an interview this week. “We are competing with a global market now, not just with northeast Florida.”

That is likely one reason Sherri Mitchell became the third member of the agency’s staff. Mitchell is in charge of the agency’s workforce development program and spearheaded the survey.

DiBella said workforce development is now a “cradle-to-grave focus” of the agency. “That is why our A-rated school system is so important. We can’t ignore any vertical need for workers that exists in the community.”

Mitchell said the survey, which included six basic questions, went out to about 80 local companies, of which 28 responded. Of those, five or six would be considered large, with hundreds of employees, while the rest were mid-size (25-50 employees) and small businesses with 25 or fewer employees.

Mitchell said, “It was a good representation of what the community is.”

The nine business representatives who attended Mitchell’s first Workforce Think Tank meeting were among those 28 companies that responded to the survey.

The business representatives at the Jan. 11 meeting were Kate Eames of The Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island, David Edwards of Sandhill Recycling, Kathy Curry of Traders Hill Farm, Jody Davis of Rayonier Inc., Eric Webb of Fast Signs, Randy Davis of Victaulic, Brandy Carvalho of White Oak, Stacie Smith of SPS Consulting and Casey Mizel of Diversified Logistics.

A 10th attendee was Nassau County School District’s Brent Lemond, who also is an NCEDB board member. Lemond is director of Career & Adult Education at the Betty P. Cook/Nassau Technical Center at the FSCJ Yulee campus.

Lemond told the group about the opportunities that could be available to set up apprenticeship programs with state assistance and spoke about programs that already are available through FSCJ. But the programs that presently exist at the Yulee campus are nursing/healthcare and business management. Culinary programs, which was mentioned as a major local need, are only available at a Jacksonville campus.

“We don’t want to negatively center on what the colleges offer,” Mitchell said. “The apprenticeship piece is great,” she added, referring to what Lemond mentioned at the meeting. “The local high schools still have trades training, so we are ahead of the game,” she said.

“Our role is to communicate the deficits for the community,” DiBella explained. “We serve as the liaison” between the needs of the business community and the workforce training institutions so that they “might be more localized to the community.”

Along those lines, DiBella offered that “our community, like most communities, need more trade schools,” rather than just liberal arts-focused institutions.

Mitchell emphasized that the role of NCEDB is “making sure we do have the right form of training available for our workforce needs.” She spends a lot of her time meeting and working with schools to that end.

“Our mission is simple: to create, grow and attract business investment to Nassau County and offer high-wage jobs to its residents and the future workforce,” states the NCEDB website. “Our vision is to create a thriving and sustainable community – one with a diverse economy, high-wage, quality jobs for area residents, and an unparalleled quality of life.”

We have a lot of land ready for new development and new companies, DiBella said. The primary recruiting target is manufacturing and light industry because “it brings the most new jobs and adds an additional three new jobs under it,” she added.

“No corporate headquarters come here without manufacturing. … It is the mother load” DiBella stated.

“But, before we get to recruiting new businesses, we have to make sure we keep the companies we have,” explained DiBella.

“Workforce is the biggest recruiting and retention concern of businesses and our agency,” she added. “If we lose one of the current employers, that is worse than losing a potential new employer. We are keying in on the (workforce) issue before it is too late.”

Mitchell said the “workforce think tank” meetings are to be held monthly, with every other one being an open forum for discussion of problems and possible solutions and the other months focusing on a presentation by a business professional.

The programs are presently scheduled to be held at the FSCJ Yulee campus, located at 76346 William Burgess Blvd., which is also where the NCEDB offices are located.

The above article first appeared in the January 24, 2018 issue of the Fernandina Beach News-Leader


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