iTech’s business partnerships prepare graduates for immediate employment

FORT MYERS – Before Immokalee Technical College opened in 2010, Principal Dorin Oxender did his homework. He met with local business leaders to discuss workforce needs, encouraged them to serve on advisory boards, and created long-lasting partnerships that now number 168 active businesses.

“The goal of iTech is to place our students in meaningful employment,” he said. “We’re not just training them but putting out a product, so to speak, that local companies want.”

The school draws students from the five-county Southwest Florida region and has an 88 percent placement rate – as high as 100 percent in some of its 19 technical programs.

Regional businesses like U.S. Sugar and Arthrex are benefiting from these collaborations and their ability to help Oxender and staff create the curriculum. They’re finally able to fill long vacant jobs with skilled employees. For iTech graduates, it’s the start of a well-paying job without relocation.

“These are careers with benefits and insurance,” Mr. Oxender said. “One of our heavy equipment mechanics made $70,000 his first year.”

Many of the programs address specific needs and were outfitted with multimillion dollar machinery and equipment donated by local businesses and some heavy hitters, including the Caterpillar Foundation, Komatsu and Vulcan Industries. When U.S. Sugar expressed a need for diesel mechanics and journeymen, iTech and two other post-secondary schools offered semester-long introduction to machining courses.

The other schools dropped the class while Mr. Oxender ramped up his program: 1,500 hours of class time, paid summer internships, and a job practically guaranteed upon completion.

U.S. Sugar paid tuition and supplied tools for an existing employee and two outside applicants. They graduated in November 2015 and “came on board as full-time journeymen this year making $24 to $29 an hour,” said Matt Kindermann, the company’s human resources manager. “They’re 20 years old, making good money plus benefits and have zero debt.”

The support of the business community and partners is “mission critical for technical education,” Mr. Oxender said. Having the input of 168 local businesses ensures iTech’s programs continually meet local workforce demands. “We won’t bring a new program out of the ground unless it’s an occupation listed by the workforce development board.”

Getting businesses involved in workforce training makes sense, according to Tessa LeSage who as director of social innovation and sustainability for the Southwest Florida Community Foundation oversees the FutureMakers Coalition. The regional network of educators, government, nonprofits, school and business leaders, students and citizens is committed to increasing the number of Southwest Florida residents with post-secondary degrees, certifications and high-quality credentials and keeping them in the area with high-paying jobs.

The Immokalee Foundation, U.S. Sugar, Arthrex and iTech are FutureMakers members and their successful partnership demonstrates the power of collective leadership – working together on a challenge and finding viable solutions.that can be modeled in other regions.”
By voicing its needs, U.S. Sugar helped the school identify training opportunities to bridge the talent gap and fast-track existing employees’ careers.

The school’s 19 programs are overseen by advisory board members who work in the industry and meet at least twice annually to review curriculum, machinery and workforce needs.

“They know what shops look like and the equipment we use,” Mr. Oxender said. “I always tell the instructors our programs are only as good as our advisory members.”

U.S. Sugar has taken its recruitments efforts a step farther by meeting with high school students interested in skilled trades, said Mr. Kindermann. “We had four enroll in school last August and know in two years we’ll have four qualified candidates.”

He hopes to offer additional career fairs at Clewiston, Moore Haven and LaBelle high schools.
By sharing their needs, Arthrex, U.S. Sugar and other Southwest Florida business are finding the employees they need.

“People need to understand that without the interaction of the business community, we can’t do the job we’re supposed to do,” said Mr. Oxender. “To me, working with business partners is everything. It makes our programs and our students successful employees.”

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