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Andrea Piscitelli conducts an eye exam Tuesday as part of her internship with The Snead Cataract office in Fort Myers.
Andrea Piscitelli conducts an eye exam Tuesday as part of her internship with The Snead Cataract office in Fort Myers. / Terry Allen Williams/news-press.com
Mike Adams conducts an eye exam Tuesday as part of his internship with The Snead Cataract office.

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Educators and business leaders are hammering away at the barriers between them with internship programs, employer-designed training programs and a teacher immersion program that intends to bring more business sense to the classroom.

The efforts are in response to issues raised at The News-Press 2011 Market Watch Education Summit including:

• Lack of experienced workers — the Southwest Florida Workforce Development Board launched an internship training program earlier this year that encourages employers to train an intern for 13 weeks while state training dollars pay their wages.

• Lack of soft skills, such as customer service, work ethic and teamwork, among young workers — A group of 25 instructors from Lee County high school career and professional education academies visited six employers to learn more about the skills lacking in the workforce and are designing curriculum to address concerns.

• Lack of highly skilled workers in the sciences or skilled trades — Arthrex Inc., a medical device manufacturer based in Naples, provided curriculum and equipment to three local technical schools so they could launch a class called Foundations of Machining that would teach workers basic skills used in a manufacturing operation. Algenol, a biofuel company with a research and development center in Lee County, developed internship programs with FGCU and Edison Collegiate High School.

The Workforce Development Board’s internship program was intended to bridge that classic conundrum of landing a job and meaningful experience without having experience to begin with.

“What we had found was that, even if the job seeker had the skills, they didn’t have the experience the employer was looking for,” said Joe Paterno, executive director of the five-county workforce board. “If you don’t have the experience, you just don’t get the opportunity in this economy.”

The board launched its internship training program with an intern job fair that attracted 200 applicants and 36 employers in February. If employers agree to train an intern for 13 weeks, the workforce board will pay the interns’ wages at a rate of 80 percent the normal starting wage for the jobs.

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While no interns are guaranteed full-time work after the internship program, the workforce board is seeking employers who will at least have an opportunity for employment after the program.

Paid to train

So far, 48 interns have been placed through the program, 26 are still in training, 11 have finished and seven left prior to the end of the internship, including four who left for other full-time employment.

Paterno said there are more job seekers interested and qualified for internships, but employers are hesitant to hire, even if the wages are paid for three months.

“The job opportunities have been limited and, what is also hurting us is that wages are lower than they were at the peak a few years ago,” Paterno said. “Paying 80 percent of a full-time wage can be a challenge because people are reluctant to take a position where they may not be able to support their families.”

But the program has been a boon for some employers and job seekers.

“We have had such a hard time hiring skilled technicians that we decided to train them in the skills we need ourselves” said Shelley Tyndall, surgical administrator of Snead Cataract, which has five locations in Southwest Florida.

The company built its internships as 13-week courses of study led by certified ophthalmic technologist Mike Fleishman that prepare the students to pursue certification as ophthalmic assistants.

The practice launched the program with four interns who will finish in November and seven more are set to begin.

“We’ve had some great students come through here,” said Connie Lewis, practice administrator. “They are people who may have never believed they would be able develop the skills they need to participate in taking care of patients.”

Building a team

Andrea Piscitelli, 25, is among those who will be completing her internship soon and pursuing certification as an ophthalmic assistant. Piscitelli completed the medical assistant program at Southwest Florida College in December, but said she continued working in food service because she could not find an opportunity.

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“I never saw myself in ophthamology, but after the first day here it was so interesting and that’s what I want to do,” Piscitelli said.

Bill Oleksinski, chief financial officer and a partner in POSabilities, a hospitality point-of-sale company, said the program gives employers an opportunity to focus on what the employee might be able to contribute longer term.

“It allows you to bring someone in who doesn’t have the specific skill sets, but the ability to learn them and really contribute something down the road,” Oleksinski said.

Both of the interns Oleksinksi brought on have been hired full-time.

As part of its own program in partnership with FGCU and Edison Collegiate High School, Algenol hired eight interns this past summer, including one teacher intern.

Several of the college students have stayed on at Algenol and even the high school students are coming in a day or two a week during the school year, taking readings and samples from batches of ethanol-producing algae, Algenol CEO Paul Woods said.

“They have made meaningful contributions,” Woods said. “Algenol is a really great place to bring engineering and biology together; probably one of the best places on the planet.”

Teachers jump in

While students are getting a taste of the workplace, a group of teachers have been learning from six local employers.

As part of the teacher immersion program, 25 teachers and 15 administrators from Lee County’s high school career and professional education academies took in-depth visits to Chico’s FAS, Shaw Development, JetBlue Park, LeeSar, Algenol and Southwest Florida International Airport.

At each, executives outlined the companies’ operation, demonstrated equipment, and talked about the skills and abilities they require of their employees. They also shared some common weaknesses they find, such as poor work ethics and communication skills, as well as workers who struggle to work as a part of a team.

Earlier this month, after the visits, the teachers began to incorporate those themes into specific lessons they will take back to their students.

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One group, for example, proposed a three-day lesson that would have students act as teams of consultants developing an Internet, email and cellphone policy for a fictional company.

The idea is that students would have to research issues and standard practices and then make a presentation, building teamwork and communication skills.

Meanwhile, the instructors also hope their students pick up another lesson that employers repeated: employees don’t get paid to browse the Internet or text their friends.

“It’s all about values and soft skills and those are things that aren’t in the textbooks,” said Mark Drew, a former professional engineer who now teaches engineering and drafting at Fort Myers High School.

But it was a lack of hard skills that prompted Arthrex Inc. to team up with the workforce board and three local technical schools for the Foundations of Machining Course.

The curriculum and materials were provided to the Immokalee Technical Center, the Fort Myers Institute of Technology and the Lorenzo Walker Institute of Technology in Naples by Arthrex.

In the 84-hour course, students learn to read technical diagrams, visualize three-dimensional plans and use tools such as micrometers that can measure up to 0.001 of an inch.

The courses were first offered during summer sessions in June and have continued with new sessions in the fall.

“We want to keep this going see if how our participating businesses feel about where we can go from here,” said Bill McCormick, administrator of the Fort Myers center.

The Southwest Regional Manufacturers Association of Florida took an informal vote to offer guaranteed interviews to graduates of the program plus offered two scholarships for the course.

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