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Counties unite to boost students’ trades skills

— Hoping to solve a shortage of skilled workers, Pinellas County is looking to copy Germany by giving high school students the chance to begin apprenticeships.

County commissioners Tuesday agreed to spend $400,000 over the next two years toward a pilot program to create a new training center where juniors and seniors can learn trades like injection molding, electronics and aviation engineering.

Similar centers will be established in Pasco and Hernando counties, part of a $2.4 million program to boost job training with the three counties matching $1.2 million supplied by the state Legislature.

Hillsborough County is not taking part, but the Museum of Science and Industry also received state funding to create a training center and to showcase state-of-the-art manufacturing technology like 3D printers and robotic arms.

The approach is modeled on a German training system in which students mix academic studies with apprenticeship training. Some high school students already are dual enrolled in Pinellas Technical Education Centers, but training at the new center will be more closely tied to local manufacturing needs, said Mike Meidel, Pinellas director of economic development.

“The equipment would be modern and selected by local manufacturers to match what they have on their factory floors,” Meidel said. “It would be a much more intensive program than generic skills.”

The center in Pinellas could open as soon as the fall of 2015 and be based in an existing school or college. In addition to apprenticeship programs, it would offer six-week certification courses in more than 40 fields to help local companies develop the skills of existing employees.

It would serve only about 10 high school students the first year but would expand in subsequent years. Juniors and seniors who enroll would be part-time students for the first two years while they concurrently earn their high school credits and then switch to full-time skills training, emerging with an two-year degree and certifications in their chosen fields.

There also are plans to partner with local German companies such Oscor, a Palm Harbor firm owned by a German national that makes leads for pacemakers, and automotive part manufacturer Kramski, whose North American operation is based in Largo. Both companies wrote letters of support for the program to help persuade lawmakers to back it.

Famed for high-quality manufacturing standards, Germany has maintained its manufacturing sector while companies in most other developed countries have shipped jobs overseas. Manufacturing accounts for more than 20 percent of the German economy compared with 13 percent in the United States, according to the Manufacturers Alliance for Productivity and Innovation.

“We’re leaning toward German companies because they’re familiar with the approach,” Meidel said.

The three centers will be overseen by a governing board comprised of one commissioner and schools superintendent or designee from each county and representatives from local colleges and manufacturing firms.

The three counties must draft and approve an interlocal agreement by July 15 to comply with requirements for state funding.

“The counties are ready to go,” said Commissioner Susan Latvala, who is expected to serve on the training centers governing board until her term as a commissioner ends in November. “Pinellas may be a little ahead because of the number of German manufacturers we have in the county that want to be part of it. It’s very exciting the way it’s coming together.”

In other action, Pinellas commissioners approved a new three-year funding deal for emergency medical services with St. Petersburg that city leaders say will maintain current 911 response times.

Under the proposal, the county will reduce EMS funding to the city by roughly $709,000 for the 2015 financial year, a cut of 5.7 percent from its $12.5 million annual funding. But the city will receive an extra $997,000 in 2016 and an increase of $784,000 in 2017.

County officials still are in talks with the 17 other cities and fire districts that serve as first responders to medical emergencies, but they hope to reach a similar agreement, said Mark Woodard, interim county administrator.

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Counties unite to boost students’ trades skills