‘State of Lee County’ complicated
Photo: Sarah Newcomb/Special to The News-Press
Opportunity, challenges and frustrations were on the agenda Friday at a “State of Lee County” panel discussion for the Horizon Council.
Central to the conversation: How can the county grow and keep young talent as its population approaches an estimated 950,000 by 2030?
The discussion at Florida SouthWestern State College in Fort Myers touched on workforce, education and the business sector. Seven leaders in the community offered their input as NBC-2 anchor Peter Busch moderated.
Positives they all seemed to agree on: there are many business opportunities here and chances to give back to the community, as well as a great quality of life. Still, there are challenges. One challenge for certain segments of the workforce is finding qualified employees.
Gail Markham (Photo: The News-Press file photo)
“We’re having issues,” said Gail Markham, founding partner of an accounting firm, speaking of the need for experienced CPAs. “They’re just nowhere to be found.”
Instead, the firm has groomed people straight out of FGCU, where 43 percent of professionals in her office have come.
Gary Griffin, president of B & I Contractors, echoed the need to provide on-the-job training.
“We have a lot of trouble filling our needs,” he said. “In the trades is where we really have a challenge. We have hired a full-time recruiter.”
Others, such as bank president Robbie Roepstorff and Private Equity Group CEO Don Schrotenboer, a developer, reported having no such staffing issues.
Lee County schools superintendent Greg Adkins (Photo: Special to The News-Press)
Busch asked Greg Adkins, the schools superintendent, about the importance of technical colleges as an alternative to schools such as FGCU and FSW.
“Fort Myers Technical College and Cape Coral Technical College are really good options that we’re just now exploring with students,” he said.
One challenge, he said, is the technical colleges aren’t able to meet the rising demand because of their size, so the plan is to expand them.
Carmine Marceno, Lee County Sheriff’s Office captain, discussed the agency’s proactive approach to law enforcement. School resource programs, for example, work with youth to make smart choices.
Roger Desjarlais (Photo: The News-Press file photo)
Busch asked Roger Desjarlais, the county manager, whether the county is ready for the infrastructure challenges it will face as the area grows.
“We have a funding issue,” he said, adding the county is $600 million behind in road construction. Some of that money will come from the federal government, he noted.
Still, he said there are plans to get the county where it needs to be. He lauded the present county commissioners for their ability to work civilly together to tackle issues, an atmosphere he said was completely different seven or eight years ago.
Robbie Roepstorff (Photo: The News-Press file photo)
A challenge for FGCU and FSW is getting students to graduation more quickly, then keeping them in the area once they have done so.
“The key is to get them graduated,” said Roepstorff, who serves on FGCU’s board of trustees.
Some students are having to work their way through school, which delays their graduation, while others may take their time because they enjoy the university life. One way to help them along is through internships.
“Then they’ve got a built-in job,” she said.
The school district has its own workforce challenges. It hired 800 teachers this past year, the superintendent said, and is now has 500 to 600 vacancies.
Adkins discussed efforts to provide incentives for teachers, noting that their salaries start at $40,000 in the district. He talked of creating teacher leaders and mentor teachers, as well as incentives to teach at more difficult-to-staff schools and to teach more challenging subjects such as physics and chemistry.
Other challenges exist with the district’s school assignment system, as well as the need to improve the quality of schools and instructors.
“We need to create a great school in every single neighborhood,” he said. “It’s a journey to get there.”
Media taken to task
The end of the conversation turned to bashing the media.
Desjarlais defended the quality of the school district, calling out the media for what he inferred is a negative perception of it. He noted the district’s fine International Baccalaureate programs, its many graduates accepted to top colleges and its production of employable students.
“We listen too much to the bad press,” he said.
“Statistically, I think we have an average school district,” countered Griffin, adding demographics of the area drag down the numbers.
Don Schrotenboer (Photo: The News-Press file photo)
Schrotenboer, a member of the advisory council at FGCU’s Lutgert College of Business, said the college’s offerings and employment needs are somewhat disconnected. He is frustrated with the time it takes to add curriculum, which can be three to five years.
Roepstorff said there are not enough advisers and counselors in K-12 education, particularly at the high school level, which means students often aren’t getting the guidance they need.
Seeming to piggy-back on comments made earlier by Desjarlais, she said confrontation on the school board creates a negative perception of the county because it makes headlines.
“We need stability on our school board,” she said, a comment that elicited applause from the audience.
Desjarlais said political stability helps to attract employers, while political misbehavior can be a deterrent.
“This constant bickering on camera has to stop,” he said to more clapping.
Schrotenboer said the media should take responsibility.
“Everything is so negative,” he said to more applause. “There are a lot of good things going on in our community.”
Busch, the moderator, defended the press.
“We do not make the school board do what they’ve done,” he said. “I think there’s a lack of understanding of what our role is.”
Roepstorff encouraged the media to ask the tough questions of candidates seeking office, implying they are not always pressed on their stances.
The Horizon Council is a public-private board that advises the Board of Commissioners on economic development issues.
Source: The News-Press