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A group of local educators, including Sue Rashon, director of Lee County Adult and Career Education, took tours of Algenol and Southwest Florida International Airport on Oct. 3 as part of a teacher immersion project. The idea is let educators experience how local businesses operate. That knowledge will hopefully be brought back into the classroom for educational and career opportunities. She was feeling flat panel reactors that are testing ethanol producing algae.
A group of local educators, including Sue Rashon, director of Lee County Adult and Career Education, took tours of Algenol and Southwest Florida International Airport on Oct. 3 as part of a teacher immersion project. The idea is let educators experience how local businesses operate. That knowledge will hopefully be brought back into the classroom for educational and career opportunities. She was feeling flat panel reactors that are testing ethanol producing algae. / Photos by Andrew West/news-press.com
Jodie Noel, a lab tech at Algenol, replaces algae samples into a shake incubator. The samples are being taken so it can be determined which type of algae is best for producing the most ethanol.

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The Southwest Florida Workforce Development Board has more than $8 million to spend this year to train local workers to take in-demand jobs.

Local colleges and universities produce hundreds of graduates each year and local high school career academies produce scores of graduates with industry certifications.

More employers are creating training programs to build their own qualified employees.

But at any time, those well-trained workers may pack up their skills and take them elsewhere for a new opportunity. Or, they may find themselves in a fight for jobs with workers relocating from across the nation or around the world.

And, while a mobile workforce complicates the process of matching workers to jobs in any particular community, experts agree that it is essential to a resilient economy.

“People are being trained to do whatever, wherever,” said Gary Jackson, an economist and director of the Regional Economic Research Institute at FGCU. “From an economist’s perspective, workplace mobility is a positive thing for the economy because the workforce can adjust quickly to changes. In places where the workers are less mobile, that tends to make it difficult to withstand shocks to the economy.”

While the Workforce Development Board is required to provide training for jobs in demand within the local region, there is nothing to prevent those job seekers from taking their skills elsewhere, said Joe Paterno, the board’s executive director.

“Obviously, if we are training people here, we would like to see that skill set stay here,” Paterno said. “But the workforce system is a national system, so if they are able to find a job somewhere else, that is still a positive for us.”

The workforce board doesn’t track the location of the workers it trains and they aren’t asked to check in if they move, so it’s not possible to say how many leave or stay, said Tracy Lansberry, division director for the local board.

“Workers in the U.S. are always going to go where the work is and where the pay is,” Lansberry said. “I think with the recession, it has accelerated.”

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FGCU surveys its graduates prior to commencement to ask about post-graduation plans. Among spring 2012 graduates, just 40 percent of those earning baccalaureate degrees planned to stay in Southwest Florida. Fall 2011 saw the lowest number on record at 39 percent. By comparison, that figure stood at 67 percent five years ago, when the region’s economy started to tumble.

Part of the decline could be attributed to a smaller proportion of the student body hailing from the five-county region. FGCU has started receiving more applications from prospective students in Southeast Florida, the Tampa Bay region and Orlando, and that out-of-area surge now fills the junior and senior classes.

Ricardo Mendilut of Cape Coral sent his oldest daughter off to college at Indiana University, his alma mater. After she graduated, there was little debate about whether she would return.

“The economy in Indiana is so much better, so she stayed there,” said Mendilut. “You go to college with the idea you’ll come back and find a job, but if there are no jobs here, you have to go somewhere else.”

Matthew Ford, a senior at North Fort Myers High, wants to be a surgical physician’s assistant, and acknowledges he’ll have to leave Southwest Florida to complete his education. He’d like to return, as would his mother, but she wouldn’t fault him for starting a life elsewhere.

“Everybody wants to try new adventures,” said Donna Ford, who originally is from Pennsylvania but now lives in Cape Coral. “People move around. God forbid we all live in the same place all of our lives. People will move in and people will move out.”

Lisandra Martinez, a freshman at Edison State College who studies nursing, said her plans all depend on what opportunities she finds.

“I wouldn’t mind staying in Cape Coral or Fort Myers as long as I get to do what I want to do,” Martinez said. “Otherwise, I will look somewhere else.”

That mobility has been a key element in Florida’s growth for decades – notwithstanding a small decline at the depths of the recession – as workers moved in seeking economic opportunities here alongside retirees chasing sunshine.

About 42 percent of Florida residents were born in another state, according to the 2011 American Community Survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau. Nationally, the average is about 27 percent.

The same survey showed nearly 500,000 Florida residents were living in another state 12 months earlier.

Some businesses feed that influx of residents out of necessity. Paul Woods, CEO of Algenol Inc., said he has to compete internationally for scientists to work in the molecular biology labs at the company’s research and development center off Alico Road in Lee County.

“This is a highly competitive industry and we have to have the best,” Woods said.

But Algenol also has been working to build a relationship with FGCU, where it organized an internship program and $250,000 in scholarships for students in science, technology, engineering and math.

“We want to do our part to help build the skills available here,” Woods said.

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