Trade school to open in Clewiston as skills gap widens

OKEECHOBEE — Representatives from U.S. Sugar were in Okeechobee on April 25 to speak to Okeechobee High School students about a new technical skills training program the company is starting later this year.

The program runs for three years and not only are students offered a job at U.S. Sugar after graduation, they are paid for their time spent in the program.

ISTA industrial skills trainer Nathan Hollis helps an Okeechobee High School student test out a virtual reality welding simulator the academy will use to train students at their facility in Clewiston. Lake Okeechobee News/Richard Marion
ISTA industrial skills trainer Nathan Hollis helps an Okeechobee High School student test out a virtual reality welding simulator the academy will use to train students at their facility in Clewiston. Lake Okeechobee News/Richard Marion

At the Industrial Skills Training Academy (ISTA) located in Clewiston, students will learn multiple mechanical skill sets including, machinist skills, welding skills and electrical skills.

Those skills along with many others are becoming more and more scarce in the workforce as the first wave of baby boomers reach retirement age.

According to a report released by the Manhattan Institute in 2016 an estimated half-million more jobs are available than people trained to fill them, with 88% of manufacturers reporting trouble finding skilled workers. The report goes on to say that 60% of unfilled manufacturing jobs are due to a shortage of applicants with requisite skills.

U.S. Sugar industrial skills development manager Don Messer speaks to students at Okeechobee High School on April 25. Lake Okeechobee News/Richard Marion
U.S. Sugar industrial skills development manager Don Messer speaks to students at Okeechobee High School on April 25. Lake Okeechobee News/Richard Marion

Don Messer, U.S. Sugar’s industrial skills development manager, was tasked with coming up with a program to teach technical skills to recently graduated high school students.

“U.S. Sugar has decided to pull the trigger on this and create this program that’ll be able to take you as a student in high school to another level,” said Mr. Messer to OHS students gathered in the school’s auditorium. “I was asked to put a program together to make sure our plant is reliable. And I can tell you that every plant out there is looking for reliability. Once you go through this program you can get a job anywhere in the U.S. with these skills.”

The program pays $13 per hour for the first year and increases to $14-15 per hour by the third and final year.

Nathan Hollis, industrial skills trainer at ISTA, moved from Pennsylvania to teach at the academy.

“Trade schools are the forgotten schools that people just don’t think about anymore,” explained Mr. Hollis. “Not everyone is made for a four-year college. I believe so strongly in this program that I moved down early to kick it off right. When I saw this opportunity with ISTA and I learned what they were working, on I was sold.”

ISTA industrial skills trainer Nathan Hollis speaks to students in the Okeechobee High School auditorium on April 25. Lake Okeechobee News/Richard Marion
ISTA industrial skills trainer Nathan Hollis speaks to students in the Okeechobee High School auditorium on April 25. Lake Okeechobee News/Richard Marion

Currently, ISTA is planning to start their student bootcamp in June. Eventually they will narrow down to 8-10 students who will take part in the school’s first year. Those 8-10 students will begin training in September with the academy’s first year ending in May 2020.

The 2016 Manhattan Institute report on the trade skills gap estimates that within a decade there will be two million more jobs available than workers with relevant skills in trades. The report states that those jobs pay above average, often at salaries higher than associated with many college degrees.

The position at U.S. Sugar offered to graduates of ISTA is a journeymen position that starts at $25 per hour.

“Every single industry is having this same problem right now,” continued Mr. Hollis. “We don’t have enough mechanics in the world. That’s why you’re seeing programs similar to this coming out now.”

More information about the academy can be found on their website at https://www.ista.tech/.

Richard Marion is a staff writer and photographer at Lake Okeechobee News and can be reached at rmarion@newszap.com.

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