Employers urged to partner with schools to improve workforce

By Marcia Heroux Pounds Sun Sentinel


Kelly Smallridge tells her employees “first you’re a parent and second you’re an employee.”

Her point: Employers need to do a better job of supporting parents, which she said would lead to more dedicated employees and an improved future workforce.

Smallridge, the mother of three sons and the head Palm Beach County’s Business Development Board, was among leaders who gathered Thursday to talk about “Preventing Florida’s Brain Drain,” part of the county’s effort to improve education and build a stronger workforce.

Other panelists stressed the importance of early childhood education, customizing education to different student levels and getting parents and children accustomed to lifelong learning for the jobs of the future, which won’t look like today’s.

New Palm Beach County Schools Superintendent Robert Avossa led off the discussion with the shortage in bus drivers that played a part, along with new technology, in the “debacle” during the county’s first week of school. Many buses were late or failed to show up to pick up students during the first week of school.

He said the situation is just one example where the county will “drive for improvement.”

Avossa, who spent some of his childhood in Vero Beach and was hired from the Altanta school district, said he will strive to create a system that is more nimble and responsive to students, teachers and parents.

“We need business partners, community members and others to say ‘let’s do what’s right for kids,'” he said.

Smallridge said the Business Development Board plans two events next year to bring together educators and business: an education summit, so educators can meet business leaders, and a career showcase focusing on the industries that are increasing jobs in Palm Beach County and how educators and students can prepare for them.

Florida Chamber Executive Vice President Tony Carvajal said half of today’s jobs won’t exist in 2030. “We have to make sure our schools and communities are ready to compete,” he said.

David Lawrence Jr., former publisher of The Miami Herald and now chair of the Children’s Movement of Florida, said the journey to better education begins with early learning. In Florida, “43 percent of third-graders can’t read at a minimally proficient level,” he said.

That has ramifications for the workforce, he said. “It’s an outrage and a scandal that we have an extraordinary number of young people who are in kindergarten or first grade who have already made up their minds they can’t do the work.”

The focus should not always be on a college degree, the panelists said. Technical certifications also prepare students more immediately for the workforce.

“The majority of jobs that this state is going to need do not require a bachelor’s degree,” said Carvajal of the Florida Chamber.

But all jobs will need some kind of advance training, and employers need to remain competitive, he said.

“Someone is waking up overseas and saying I want to get as well-trained and educated as I can. When we say students don’t need a college degree, we lose the race,” Carvajal said

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