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Training tops business agenda

Among the proposals to be presented to the Legislature is a tuition voucher to spur worker development in key areas.

[Times photo: John Pendygraft]
Christ West, left, and Steve Ryalls-Clephane practice troubleshooting in an electromechanical technology class at the Pinellas Technical Education Center.

By KYLE PARKS

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 7, 2000


For years, Florida business leaders have complained that technical schools and community colleges aren't producing the workers they need.

There's too much money for cosmetology curriculums and not enough for construction classes, they say. Companies are desperate for workers in information technology, auto repair and nursing, but schools don't attract enough students to those fields.

As the Florida Legislature opens its session today, it will consider a fresh approach to the problem:

How about taking some of the money that now goes to the schools and giving it directly to the students so they can shop for courses that meet their needs? In return, the students would have to train for occupations in high demand and commit to stay in Florida to work afterward.

The idea is part of a far-reaching work force development bill that will be one of the top business issues in Tallahassee this spring.

The Legislature will consider a number of issues that affect business, such as creating an agency to promote technology, coming up with a statewide building code and considering whether to give patients more leverage with managed-care providers.

But work force development may be the issue with the widest impact. With the state's unemployment rate at a low 3.7 percent, finding -- and creating -- qualified workers is the biggest challenge facing the state's businesses. Realizing that, Senate President Toni Jennings, R-Orlando, formed a select committee that came up with a bill called the Workforce Innovation Act.

The bill would take the first steps toward consolidating the state's work force efforts under one agency, Workforce Florida Inc., by combining that agency with the state's WAGES welfare-to-work programs. "Right now, we have 17 agencies working on these issues," said Sen. Jim Sebesta, R-St. Petersburg, a member of the committee. "And in some cases, no one is talking to each other."

Also, schools would do more to recruit trainees. Among the ideas: take buses into inner cities staffed with job counselors and online job listings.

But the most innovative part of the legislation is the idea of paying tuition for students entering in-demand fields such as information technology, health care, manufacturing, auto repair and construction. To get the money, students would have to agree to work in the state for a specified period of time, perhaps three to four years. At the same time, less state money would be spent on, say, those less urgent cosmetology courses.

Sebesta thinks the idea would force schools to improve their programs as they compete for students. "A student with this tuition voucher would shop around and pick the best program," he said.

But making the new concept work could be difficult, said Clyde Cassity, director of the Pinellas Technical Education Center, though he likes the idea. "We hire teachers before each year and often give them long-term commitments," he said. "That would have to change."

It appears the bill will have wide-ranging support. The Senate select committee also includes prominent Democrats such as Ron Klein, D-Boca Raton, and the bill is the top priority for the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

Some other issues for the Florida business community to watch:

ITFlorida.com: Legislators will consider Gov. Jeb Bush's plan to create a new agency called ITFlorida.com to promote technology. While Workforce Florida Inc. would remain under Enterprise Florida, the state's public-private economic development group, ITFlorida.com would be a separate non-profit group with close ties to the technology industry.

The organization would push for a "network access point," an Internet routing center, in the state. It also would market the state to technology companies and recruiters and would set up incubators for young companies to work with universities.

Statewide building code. This promises to be one of the biggest fights of the session. The insurance industry backs the Florida Building Commission's plan that would require builders of new homes in many coastal areas to include hurricane shutters, impact-resistant glass or special hurricane designs. It would extend the tough rules already in effect in South Florida to 31 other counties. Among the areas covered: parts of Citrus, Hernando, Pasco and Hillsborough counties, and practically all of Pinellas County.

But the Florida Association of Home Builders backs a less-ambitious plan that would drop 17 counties off the list. The Tampa Bay area would still be covered, but narrower strips of coastline would be affected.

Health insurance: A number of Republicans are getting behind plans to allow patients to sue their HMOs, while Associated Industries of Florida, a powerful business lobbying group, is pushing a less-ambitious approach that focuses on making sure doctors make decisions on coverage and giving patients more power in appealing decisions.

High-interest loans: Senate President Jennings and Senate Majority Leader Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, are backing a bill to cap the interest rates charged by title loan companies and check-cashing stores, which can charge as much as 400 percent interest on an annual basis. But the loan industry will fight the bill, and it has a number of powerful lobbyists on its side.

Transportation: Plans are taking shape in the House and Senate to give even more money to road improvements than Bush proposed in his Mobility 2000 plan. In the Tampa Bay area, the plans would speed up improvements to the interstate system and also go toward other busy roads such as U.S. 19 and Roosevelt Boulevard in Pinellas County. The Tampa Bay area stands to get more than $1-billion in extra funding if legislators prevail.

Economic development: Bush's budget would trim further the responsibilities of Enterprise Florida, though it would give the organization control of a new $21-million Critical Industries Infrastructure Fund, which would help rural areas, the space industry and civilian businesses associated with military bases. The state's "closing fund" for big-ticket business relocation prospects would stay at$4-million.

Intangible tax: Business lobbyists are pushing for the Legislature to finish killing off the state's intangible tax on businesses, as planned, and to start a multiyear phaseout of the tax on individuals.

Growth management: Bush's administration wants to create a task force that would take at least a year to study how best to change the state's growth management law, which has done little to stop suburban sprawl in Florida's urban areas. Environmental activists are worried that the governor, a former developer, really wants to weaken the controls -- and they're even more worried that legislators might weaken the existing law in the meantime.

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