It's all about water, says David Valdaia -- finding future workers to help Florida protect its most vital natural resource, like this picturesque pond in Lake Alfred.
PALM BAY — At a time when Florida’s unemployment rate is stuck in double-digits, it seems certain that any job that becomes available would probably not only get filled pretty quickly, but would attract a huge number of applications.
But as David Valdaia notes, there are some jobs that are pretty tough to fill these days, and this shortage of qualified workers is likely to continue for the forseeable future.
It may be that when kids in high school dream about their future, Hollywood actor, major league baseball player, RAP singer or Fortune 500 CEO may be at the top of their fantasties. Fewer, it can be presumed, think about wastewater treatment plant operator.
But in a state where water treatment and land conservation are major issues, public utilities and environmental engineering firms often struggle to find qualified workers, said Valdaia, the career and technical education director at the Brevard County Public School System.
“The water industry in particular is facing a critical expertise drain,” he said. “The average utilities wokrer is about 55 years old, and that industry in Florida and nationally is facing a brain drian and loss of expertise, and there’s no structured pipeline to meet that loss.”
The same, he added, can be said for firms that require environmental engineers, hydrologists, and civil engineers.
“There is a huge demand today, and there will be no abatement of that in the years to come,” Valdaia said.
There might be less of a shortage in Brevard County in the coming years. Heritage High School in Palm Bay just started a special academy aimed at producing more students who want to work in fields related to environmental sciences technology.
It’s a collaboration, Valdaia said, between educators and business leaders. Utility and environmental professionals sat down with Brevard school leaders to develop a career academy focused around environmental stewardship and water resources technology. Launched in January, Valdaia said the program is still in its infancy.
To enable their students to continue their education after graduation, Heritage High established a partnership with Florida Gateway College in Lake City, which provides associates degrees.
“They are key partners with us in this initiative,” Valdaia said. “We contracted with them to produce a set of deliverables which are in essence a model on how to do what we’ve done with this academy. The essence of the career academy is they offer a lot of significant benefits and opportunities to students that they wouldn’t receive in something besides a career academy. The students opt in — they’re not placed here. It’s an opportunity of choice. It’s also open to students out of the area anywhere in the county.”
It’s also a program where the academic work gets integrated into the students’ other classes — English, math, and science all play a role in helping to teach this particular field.
“These teachers work in the academy as a team,” Valdaia said. “They integrate lessons on a water resources/environmental theme, and the coursework is reinforced in their English programs, their biology programs, their math programs. It’s a team effort. It’s not just ‘Take a class, hit and run.’ There are opportunities for professional mentoring, and the mentoring components are critical and essential. The students have opportunities for excursions and field trips to the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge for the purpose of learning how to do real time resarch. A fundamental requirement above and beyond the academy courses is the students must take science research with the outside advisors and folks collaborating with us. There are ample opportunities for career shadowing and paid and non-paid internships.”
The ultimate goal, Valdaia said, is to educate more students in a field that’s expecting to keep growing, just as Florida continues decades of an escalating population boom. The more people who move to Central Florida, the more pressures that places on the water supply, eco-system, conservation land, and wildlife. The cities, counties and private firms that deal with these issues will need workers to help them protect these vital natural resources, Valdaia said.
“One of the benefits of successfully completing the program is the students will sit for the Level C water or wastewater examination, which is offered through the (state) Department of Environmental Protection,” Valdaia said. “When they pass that, they will be awarded an industry certification. That is evidence they have taken and passed that exam, very valued by the industry.”
And, he said, good jobs will be waiting for those students.
“There is a huge and crying need for these skilled workers,” he said.
Palm Bay isn’t alone. Haines City High School is also looking into creating an environmental sciences technology academy, and a group of business leaders from Haines City visited Heritage High on Tuesday to learn more about how their academy works.
Jane Patton, president of the Greater Haines City/Northeast Polk County Chamber of Commerce, said their goal is “to provide some opportunities for the students to earn some certification so they can stay in the community and work here. We have been working with industry partners on how to engage the students and get them into those jobs. It’s really a growing field and it pays well.”
After looking to see what school systems had a similar program in place, Haines City found that “the closest thing to this academy is what Heritage High School is developing,” Patton said.
“They see the potential and where it can lead,” Valdaia said. “All of the anecdotal and informal feedback we’re getting, and just the buzz, has been good. I’ve been in public education and been a high school principal and taught for many years, and I have never seen the amount of public support and collaboration behind a particular academy as this one. This one really seems to resonate well.”
And that may be, he added, because everyone recognizes that one crucial resource that this academy is helping to address.
“Water is life,” he said. “It begins and ends there.”
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