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June 17, 2007
Already hamstrung by some of the nation's lowest wages and a critical dearth of industrial sites, Marion County is facing a new stumbling block in its drive to raise the standard of living of its working class.
Work force and economic development officials say changing demographics will leave the county with a crippling worker shortage by the end of the decade if steps aren't taken to attract more skilled workers and implement more job and school-based vocational training programs. Specifically, they foresee too few workers to fill the employment demands of the construction, manufacturing, health services and business and professional services sectors.
A fundamental problem is the percentage of Marion County's 45-and-older population is going steadily up, while the proportion of school-age residents and those who actually hold jobs is declining. Compounding the work force woes is that a recent survey of the nation's 325 largest job markets ranked our community's wages an embarrassing No. 315 - hardly alluring to highly skilled, educated workers.
The work force dilemma does not portend well for Marion County's economic future.
To illustrate just how dire the situation is, in 1990 the county labor force accounted for 41 percent of the population. Ten years later it made up 40 percent, and in 2005 only 38 percent of population was part of the work force.
The dwindling share of the population that goes to work every day is already creating problems for employers and the people whose job it is to recruit and train an adequate work force. And it is no doubt a turn-off to businesses looking to locate here.
"What we're hearing is, 'You're not getting us the right people,'Ê" said Rusty Skinner, executive vice president of CLM Workforce Connection, the state employment and training agency serving Citrus, Levy and Marion counties. "Well, it's hard when they're not here." The county's unemployment rate, which has hovered around 3 percent for the past couple of years, supports his claim.
Skinner told us the future looks even bleaker because Marion County's school-age population is now the smallest segment of the population. He said if every child graduated high school - about one in four now doesn't - and all were proficient in the basic skills - that is, they passed FCAT - there still would not be enough competent workers coming through the pipeline to fulfill Marion County's future work force needs.
"We don't need 60-year-olds here," Skinner said. "We need people with college degrees."
To begin addressing the coming work force crisis, Skinner and his team at CLM Workforce have reorganized, creating a "business services team" that will focus on the following key industries.
* Construction/Utilities: These two are among the top four business sectors in both total employment and wages and will see job growth by the end of the decade of 10 percent and 8 percent, respectively.
* Manufacturing/Distribution: Manufacturing is the second-best paying industry sector in Marion County and brings the largest amount of outside dollars to the local economy. Two percent employment growth is forecast over the next five years.
* Health services: The growing 45-64 age group and longer lifespans will require significantly greater numbers of health care workers. This is Marion County's third-best-paying industry and job growth is expected to soar by 22 percent by the beginning of the next decade.
* Business and Professional Services: This all-encompassing sector - banking, insurance, finance, etc. - is expected to grow twice as fast as the economy overall.
CLM's "industry cluster strategy" is a forward-thinking first step. Acknowledging the problem before it is a full-blown crisis is commendable. CLM Workforce's goal is summed up in a release announcing its strategic initiative:
"The percent of the population in the labor pool must increase through better strategies to engage non-workers. This may include flexible employment opportunities for older workers and creative training opportunities such as the Marion Technical Institute for younger students in the work force pipeline. Education and training providers must increase technical and skills training in high-skill, high-wage fields."
With a low wage scale, an inadequate labor pool and an aging population, elevating the quality and pay of Marion County jobs won't be easy, but for now we're encouraged that CLM Workforce and its partners are addressing the problem sooner rather than later.