by Aaron London
It’s been said the more things change, the more they remain the same. While that may be a generalization, for Flagler Technical College, it gets to the heart of the school’s mission.
Operating for years as Flagler Technical Institute and charged with providing local students with educational opportunities in career fields from cosmetology and health sciences to transportation, distribution and logistics, the Flagler County school took on a new identity in July 2020, becoming Flagler Technical College.
Executive Director Renee Stauffacher said the decision to re-brand the educational institution was taken to give graduates a leg up in finding a career.
“There are 48 technical colleges and institutes in the state and I believe it’s up to 45 of them that have changed their name to college,” she said. “What it does is it helps give credibility to the certificate programs we offer and it helps parents understand it is a post-secondary college option for students.”
Already aligned with other higher education institutions, including Daytona State College, Stauffacher said the agreements Flagler Technical College has made allows students to translate their work at FTC into college credits “if and when they want to move on.”
Stauffacher said FTC is also in discussions with the University of North Florida as that school’s plans to build a medical nexus facility in Palm Coast move forward.
“We’ve been in discussions with them to make sure we can all work together in health careers,” she said.
But for those students who want to get right to a career, FTC offers a range of options in several different industries that are primed for growth. And when you are talking about growth in Flagler County, that includes construction.
While it has been several years – and a housing bust – since Flagler was the nation’s fastest-growing county, residential and commercial construction is still one of the foundations of the local economy. And as skilled workers in the building trades, including heavy equipment operators, began retiring, local businesses teamed up with FTC to fill a growing need.
“The heavy equipment program was the result of our targeted direction and goals we put in place,” Stauffacher said.
For example, students enrolled in carpentry classes could move on to the heavy equipment program to gain more specialized training in the construction trades, she said.
Partnering with several companies, including Cine Construction, 4C’s Trucking and Excavation and P&S Paving, the year-long program provides students with on-the-ground experience – literally — so when they complete training they are ready to go right into the field.
Stauffacher said enrollment in the program is “still not where we hope it is going,” but interest is growing.
One way the school has worked to increase interest in the program was the purchase of a heavy equipment simulator. The $35,000 piece of equipment lets prospective students and other curious members of the public get a feel for what it takes to operate heavy construction equipment.
Stauffacher said the simulator is mobile and that gives the school not only more flexibility with its use, it allows staff to showcase the heavy equipment program.
“Part of the idea and why we have it on wheels is so we can move it around and take it to different places and get the next generation interested,” she said.
Getting that next generation interested is music to the ears of Scott Sowers, president of Cline Construction and one of FTC’s early partners in the heavy equipment program.
“Back when Renee thought up the idea of having a heavy equipment operator school, she invited myself and other site work contractors to see what it is as far as training goes,” Sowers said. “We had some meetings with them and came up with the curriculum and put them in touch with some of the different equipment suppliers.”
But Sowers’ connection to the program went beyond consultation and comment. His company also made a piece of land adjacent to its headquarters at Steel Rail Industrial Park in Bunnell available for field training.
“They ran out of space where they were having it,” he said. “They had classroom space but they didn’t have the space for hands-on training. Nothing beats sitting in the seat and moving dirt and putting pipe in the ground.”
Now FTC students in the program can operate the heavy equipment, move dirt, dig holes and fill them back in.
“It gives students some seat time in the heavy equipment,” Sowers said.
While Sowers said Cline Construction is always happy to help out in the community, there is a bit of motivated self-interest at play as well.
“If we get some trained students out of this that we can hopefully hire and keep our local students local, that would be great,” he said. “We thought it was a good fit for us in that program.”
For Chelsea Barney Herbert, president at 4C’s Trucking and Excavation, the FTC programs aren’t just about finding skilled equipment operators today, but into the future.
“We’re all feeling the labor shortage, specifically in construction,” she said. “For us to be able to create a funnel that takes our greatest asset in the community, which is our youth, and gets them into training into real-life jobs right in our backyard is great for everybody.”
Herbert said having a talent pipeline of trained equipment operators is something she has thought about and the opportunity to work with FTC and the school district fit the bill.
“It may not be something that benefits us today, tomorrow or even six months from now, but it is something we have to get the ball rolling with,” she said. “This is huge for my future and for the future of my company.”
Herbert said the programs at FTC also help to highlight the continued importance of the construction industry in Flagler County.
“It’s such a driver of the economy,” she said. “There are so many things this industry touches and it is important that we encourage the youth of our community that there are available options right here, that there are many good career options right here.”
Sowers said there is plenty of work for his company right now and one of the only limitations is having enough trained operators on staff.
“Our growth is limited by being able to find the people we can hire as operators,” he said. “To us, an important part of the business is being able to take on work as it comes to us.”
While graduates of the program know the basics, Sowers said they still can use more “seat time,” but that isn’t a problem.
“They have the basics down,” he said. “We can train them the rest of the way. You can’t ask for anything more than that.”
Stauffacher said the heavy equipment program not only connects students with local employers, it also serves as an example of the kind of career opportunities that exist in Flagler County.
“People are interested,” she said. “They are starting to understand how these kinds of specific skills can help them be successful.”
And, as the saying goes, success breeds success.
Aaron London is a reporter and columnist who has covered business and economics for 27 years. He has worked for newspapers in Ohio and Florida and is also an adjunct professor of journalism at Daytona State College.