CLEWISTON — Last year, representatives from United States Sugar Corp. visited schools around the lake to speak to students about a new technical skills training program the company would be starting in late 2019.
At that school, the Industrial Skills Training Academy (ISTA) located in Clewiston, students would have the opportunity to learn multiple mechanical skill sets, including machinist skills, welding skills and electrical skills. Not only are students offered a job at U.S. Sugar after graduation, they are paid for their time spent in the program.
COVID-19 threw a wrench into everyone’s plans in 2020, including teachers and students at ISTA. But Nathan Hollis, the industrial skills trainer at ISTA, says the academy was able to navigate a path through the pandemic.
“During the first outbreak,” explained Hollis, “we were all sent home for almost 12 weeks. But the students and the instructor trained virtually from our homes, and the students continued to be paid as well.”
“The ISTA program is progressing very well and we are constantly developing material, improving and learning,” continued Hollis. “Our first class started their year two material in September as we welcomed our second class that same day. The program has already started to be beneficial for U.S. Sugar as a whole, and we are excited to see where it leads.”
The skills taught at ISTA, along with many others, are becoming more and more scarce in the work force as the first wave of Baby Boomers reach retirement age.
According to a report released by the Manhattan Institute in 2016, an estimated half-million more jobs are available than people trained to fill them, with 88% of manufacturers reporting trouble finding skilled workers. The report goes on to say that 60% of unfilled manufacturing jobs are due to a shortage of applicants with requisite skills.
Don Messer, U.S. Sugar’s industrial skills development manager, was tasked with coming up with a program to teach technical skills to recently graduated high school students.
“U.S. Sugar has decided to pull the trigger on this and create this program that’ll be able to take you as a student in high school to another level,” said Mr. Messer to OHS students gathered in the school’s auditorium in early 2019. “I was asked to put a program together to make sure our plant is reliable. And I can tell you that every plant out there is looking for reliability. Once you go through this program, you can get a job anywhere in the U.S. with these skills.”
Okeechobee High School would go on lead in the number of candidates participating in the program out of every school that U.S. Sugar visited.
The program pays $13 per hour for the first year, and that increases to $14-15 per hour by the third and final year. Once they graduate, students are then offered a journeyman position at U.S. Sugar that starts at $25 per hour.
“We now have two classes of students and three instructors,” said Hollis. “As we start recruiting for the third class, we are being faced with schools not allowing outside visitors, so we are developing virtual meetings with the schools and asking for them to help us get the word out. As soon as we are allowed back on site, we will continue to visit the schools and share our story.”