OHS leads in candidates for new trade school

CLEWISTON — During the 2018-19 school year, representatives from U.S. Sugar traveled all around Lake Okeechobee visiting schools ahead of the new Industrial Skills Training Academy (ISTA) opening in Clewiston.

They spoke to students about the opportunity at ISTA, which is a new technical skills training program the company would be opening later in 2019.

Lake Okeechobee News/Richard Marion
ISTA instructor Nathan Hollis speaks to students at Okeechobee High School on April 25 about the new academy opening in Clewiston later in 2019.

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

“Trade schools are the forgotten schools that people just don’t think about anymore,” explained ISTA instructor Nathan Hollis during a visit at Okeechobee High School. “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 is currently putting students through what they call their “boot camp,” which is the final selection phase for the eight to 10 students who will take part in what will be the academy’s first year starting in September. Okeechobee High School currently has the most students participating in that boot camp out of every high school U.S. Sugar visited.

ISTA selected OHS graduates Esdras Villegas, Josh Allen, Jose Cervantes, Christopher Lanning, Chase Trent, Gabriel Nunez, Derek Banister and Enoc Lopez as an alternate to take part in the school’s boot camp in June.

Mr. Hollis credits the OHS technical programs for the number of students selected from Okeechobee.

“The response has been fantastic and the young adults that are here are really doing well,” said Mr. Hollis. “We are on track and running smoothly. I do feel that OHS’s program does play a big part in the higher number of candidates that came from there.”

U.S. Sugar has been trying to foster a new generation of agriculture mechanics in the area for some time now.

Back in 2016, the company helped the Hendry County School District kickstart its agriculture and industrial mechanics program for residents in Hendry County. That program was offered as both adult education classes and as dual enrollment for high school students. The mechanics program was designed to provide basic mechanical knowledge used in farm fields and agricultural factories in the area and help students learn through hands-on training how to repair diesel engines, hydraulics, electronics, gear boxes and sugarcane harvesters.

ISTA appears to be a natural extension of that program.

U.S. Sugar is making a push to bring in a new generation of mechanics because there has been a skills gap in that area for some time and it has only gotten wider in recent years.

According to a report released by the Manhattan Institute in 2016, an estimated half-million more manufacturing 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.

Many of those skills are becoming more scarce in the workforce as the first wave of Baby Boomers are now reaching retirement age.

If accepted into ISTA, the students will be paid $13 per hour for their first year and that amount increases to $14-15 per hour by the third and final year.

Once they graduate, students are then offered a journeymen position at U.S. Sugar that starts at $25 per hour.

If you’re interested in learning more about the skills academy, visit their website at 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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