2015-10-14 / Business News

Cultivating a workforce

Program provides employee incentives, tuition assistance and better business

Nate Swan of Gartner, attorney Will McDonough, SWFL Community Foundation CEO Sarah Owen and Hendry County Administrator Charles Chapman are among the community leaders working to ensure that employers can find qualified, trained employees in town. 
COURTESY PHOTO Nate Swan of Gartner, attorney Will McDonough, SWFL Community Foundation CEO Sarah Owen and Hendry County Administrator Charles Chapman are among the community leaders working to ensure that employers can find qualified, trained employees in town. COURTESY PHOTO Nate Swan expects to hire 2,000 account executives during the next five years as sales of proprietary business technology research and advisory services continue to grow internationally at Gartner’s Fort Myers division.

Naples-based Arthrex, an orthopedic medical device company, represents the office place of the future with its career opportunities for younger employees ranking among Fortune’s 100 Best Workplaces for Millennials.

And Lee Memorial Health System is building its base of nurses and filling job openings by providing employee tuition assistance that covers most of the costs associated with completing associate, bachelor’s and master’s degrees and specialized certification training.

Lee Memorial Health System employees receive support to further their educations. 
COURTESY PHOTO Lee Memorial Health System employees receive support to further their educations. COURTESY PHOTO Three completely different businesses but all with the same needs: employees with college degrees or industry-specific certifications. And to fill those positions, the companies are ponying up incentives for workers who want to further their education.

About 475 companies in Southwest Florida employ more than 100 workers and play a pivotal role in helping the FutureMakers Coalition reach its goal of transforming the regional workforce by increasing the number of degree and certificate holders in Charlotte, Collier, Lee, Glades and Hendry counties from 27 percent to 40 percent by 2025.

Improving the workforce’s qualifications not only benefits companies, it also creates a more vibrant and sustainable economy. Members of the coalition include major employers who are working with K-12 and post-secondary educators, community and government leaders, and other stakeholders determined to reshape the regional business climate and create a better place to live and work.

LESAGE LESAGE Introduced in March 2015, FutureMakers is among 75 metropolitan areas included in Lumina Foundation’s Community Partnership for Attainment, a national movement to increase the quality and competitiveness of America’s workforce.

In Southwest Florida, retail, construction, business services, health care and consumer services are the top five employers, according to Brent Kettler, a data consultant for the FutureMakers Coalition. And they all have pressing needs to fill jobs with skilled employees – now and in the next decade.

The coalition has assembled Regional Action Teams and a Champions Team to create a cradle-to-career network supporting traditional students, adult learners, the unemployed and the underemployed in achieving degree and certification attainment. It is involving and learning from the area’s largest employers.

Jeffrey Bentley (right) at work at Arthrex. 
COURTESY PHOTO Jeffrey Bentley (right) at work at Arthrex. COURTESY PHOTO “From a business standpoint, ensuring employers have a strong voice at the FutureMakers table is one component in realizing the transformation of the region’s workforce and economy,” said Tessa LeSage, director of social innovation and sustainability for the Southwest Florida Community Foundation, which is serving as the coalition’s anchor organization. “We also want to help business leaders understand how they can directly influence the development and advancement of a versatile and highly-skilled regional workforce while helping meet immediate and long-term employment needs and promoting the ability to expand.”

BENTLEY BENTLEY Other Lumina partners have already discovered the importance of large businesses as role models for other companies, highlighting successful job shadowing, mentorship, internship and apprenticeship programs for students and employees. Flexible scheduling for employees to volunteer in their children’s schools, provide tutoring and mentoring in local schools, and explore career opportunities within the company also enhances a business’s ability to improve the quality and depth of the local job market.

In other Lumina cities, business owners and CEOs have become instrumental in advocating for the cause, keeping major stakeholders engaged, and leading and building teams.

All of these scenarios are relevant to the Southwest Florida business landscape, Ms. LeSage said.

“We’ve seen business communities across the country work with our national partners to offer innovative programs that create internships and encourage employees to become mentors as well as provide support for existing employees to complete a degree or certification,” she said. “Businesses want to promote from within and hire locally, therefore, increasing the quality of a metropolitan region’s workforce provides competitive advantages for the business community and an improved quality of life for employees with postsecondary skills.”

BOOSE BOOSE By working with educators and each other, larger businesses can share best practices and help guide the curriculum and career paths offered to kindergarten through high school students as well as technical and traditional college enrollees. They’re also focusing on strengthening existing internal programs for employees or introducing additional services to entice employees to pursue college degrees or industry certifications.

DIMARE DIMARE As Southwest Florida’s largest employer with 10,900 employees, Lee Memorial Health System offers extensive opportunities for employees to become nurses – there’s a shortage nationwide — or pursue other fields of interest.

Marilyn Felton, Lee Memorial’s education assistance and grant coordinator, estimates 60 to 70 percent of its eligible workforce are taking courses. Her department has a $1.2 million budget for educational assistance and has helped janitors, housekeepers and other entry-level and non-credentialed employees become nurses at no or minimal out-of-pocket expense.

“We continue to grow and I expect we’ll increase the budget,” Ms. Felton said. “We mention the program during orientation for new hires and start getting phone calls immediately.”

The system’s tuition assistance provides up to $3,500 for full- and part-time employees pursuing associate, bachelor’s and master’s degrees plus completion of licensed nurse practitioners programs. In-house classes are also geared to nurses so “they don’t have to travel and take time off work. We’re very accommodating and go out of our way for nurses,” Ms. Felton said. “They’re really important to us.”

Tuition assistance includes a $2,500 annual benefit for employees pursuing an associate degree or bachelor of science in nursing. The rate jumps to $3,500 for master’s programs in nursing, leadership and healthcare administration. Auxiliaries at various hospitals also award $500 to $1,800 education grants to employees and the general public and in 2015 distributed $266,000, Ms. Felton said.

At 50, Milton Housen, of Fort Myers, took advantage of Lee Memorial’s tuition reimbursement to become a registered nurse. Now 56, he’s a year away from completing requirements as a nurse practitioner — a clinician who can diagnose and treat health conditions while focusing on disease prevention and health management.

Mr. Housen received annual grants and tuition assistance that covered most of his education expenses. Lee Memorial’s partnership with Florida SouthWestern State College allowed him to earn his initial degree without any cost.

“I would never have been able do this without the hospital’s assistance,” Mr. Housen said. “The funding made it possible for me to enjoy this part of my life and focus on giving back.”

Ms. Felton said 45 to 50 percent of Lee Memorial’s employees who participate in education assistance start at Florida SouthWestern because it’s affordable. “There’s a 98 percent chance 100 percent will be covered by us.”

The health system also offers a $1,300 benefit for employees seeking nonclinical degrees. Employees who take advantage of the assistance programs are required to work for the healthcare system from 12 months to two years, Ms. Felton said.

“The majority stay,” she said. “We don’t have a lot of turnover and are always giving service awards for 20 to 55 years with Lee Memorial Health System.”

One of its newest incentives is the Edward and Florence Budzinski Scholarship Fund started in 2014. About 35 employees have received scholarships which covers 90 percent of the $30,000 to $40,000 cost of pursuing Bachelor of Science, master’s degrees and nurse practitioner programs at Nova University.

“When I started at Lee Memorial in the late 1990s there were 55 people in our assistance programs,” Ms. Felton said “Now we have more than 10,000 employees who have taken advantage of the programs.”

Ms. LeSage said Lee Memorial’s emphasis on advancing employees’ education is a good example of incentives other employers can incorporate into their business model.

“The benefits for the employer, the employee and the region’s economy cannot be understated,” she said. “It’s a great way to create a competitive edge within the organization and beyond, but it requires ongoing communication between business and education.”

The health system’s partnership with a local college also demonstrates the importance of business-education partnerships.

Mr. Swan of Gartner would like to establish a similar collaboration with Florida Gulf Coast University to aid in preparing more students for sales careers.

“From an employer standpoint, Future- Makers is absolutely needed for companies like ours to find high-quality individuals in the region,” he said. “I’m looking for entry-level salespeople for first to third jobs out of college.”

Right now he’s filling account executive vacancies with recruits from outside the region, many of them enrolled in newly introduced professional sales classes offered at three Florida colleges. He’s discussing opportunities with Wilson Bradshaw, president of FGCU, to offer a similar program at the Estero campus.

“Two years ago I would have said personality was the best attribute for an account executive,” Mr. Swan said. “Now there are 100 colleges in the U.S. offering professional selling certificates and degrees and I’m seeing a huge benefit to hiring graduates from these programs. They’re exposed in the classroom to selling, theory and already know whether or not they like sales.”

Gartner’s sales division expects to convert 30 of its 43 paid interns into jobs. The company also offers opportunities for quick advancement. Within two years, account executives can be promoted “and make very good money,” said Mr. Swan. “I want to promote from within because a current employee is always more effective than a new hire.”

Arthrex also offers internships and recently transitioned two interns to fulltime positions in its marketing and human relations departments. The two women are among the millennial generation, ages 18 years to early 30s who will account for 75 percent of the workforce during the next decade.

Also rated by Fortune among the 100 Best Companies to Work For, Arthrex offers several in-house programs to identify leaders and advance quality employees. Its four-year on-the-job apprentice program, started in 2010 to fill a lingering void in its operations, pays apprentices while preparing them for national certification as journeymen/machinists.

“I was working in construction and had really lost interest in it,” said Jeffrey Bentley who was one of the program’s pioneers. “This was an opportunity to change careers. I was starting a family and needed income while getting an education to better myself.”

Mr. Bentley now works in the company’s prototype department as part of the creative team determining the machine processes needed to produce a new product.

Mike Boose, director of human resources, says the apprenticeship program accepts four to five applicants annually, typically selecting half from its existing employees and opening two slots to the public.

The company also provides internships for students at Lorenzo Walker and Immokalee technical colleges, in-house training for industrial maintenance positions, corporate training and development, and has programs in place to train leaders through job shadowing.

“We believe in investing in our internal talent pool but sometimes struggle to find enough leaders,” Mr. Boose said.

It found one in Kelly DiMare who was halfway to completing her bachelor’s degree when she joined Arthrex in 2009.

“I was fortunate I had a manager who understood the value of me completing my degree and laid out a path for me,” she said. “Someone had the foresight to see where I could go and what I could to.”

Ms. DiMare took advantage of the company’s tuition reimbursement and graduated top in her class at Hodges University with a degree in information systems management specializing in compliance as a quality engineer. She’s now the supervisor of Arthrex’s Global Quality Management Systems.

Mr. Boose said Arthrex reimburses employees for college courses pertinent to positons within the company, be it degrees in business, engineering, accounting and other departments. Employees must maintain certain grades.

“Kelly is a great example of what we do here for our employees,” he said. “Our managers work closely with employees who show initiative. We were lucky to find someone with her talent and ability and offer a program that feeds into the FutureMakers’ goal.”

Mr. Boose is a member of the Future- Makers Coalition’s Champions Team, calling the work of the coalition “valuable to our company. It matches well with what we’re doing and will also help us find additional talent in the community.”

He’s also hopeful the push to increase post-secondary education will aid Arthrex in filling difficult jobs, typically those relating to technical manufacturing and IT business analysts, the latter one of the fastest-growing needs in the modern-day business world.

As the FutureMakers Coalition expands its reach and focus, it will actively involve more of the regional business community, Ms. LeSage said.

“Imagine what could happen in Southwest Florida if we work together to establish an aligned cradle-to-career pathway,” she said. “The result would be a highlyskilled workforce and the employment opportunities needed to ensure those skills stay in the region. Businesses would thrive, but so would individuals, families, schools, neighborhoods, and the economy.” ¦

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