By Anthony Clark
Published: Saturday, September 21, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Gainesville’s low unemployment rate does not tell the whole story for those at the lower end of the economic scale who often compete with college students for jobs in the service sector such as at retail stores and restaurants.
Gainesville consistently has had one of the lowest jobless rates in the state — its 5.4 percent rate in August was second only to the Destin area among 23 metro areas — which is typical of areas with high levels of government employment.
That is especially true in college towns, where people who do not have a job but are in school do not count as part of the labor force in determining the jobless rate, but students with jobs do count.
The opportunities look more bleak for those with lower levels of education. For adults who didn’t finish high school, the jobless rate in Gainesville was 15.4 percent for the five-year period between 2007 and 2011, according to Census Bureau figures. And for those with a high school diploma or GED, the rate was 8.6 percent in Gainesville for 2007-2011.
“We live in a college town, so a lot of these college kids are taking these jobs at McDonald’s to work on weekends or at nights,” said Dana Norman, welfare transition program manager for FloridaWorks.
Workforce and education officials say the answer is more training and more education.
For those who dropped out of high school, that starts by earning a GED.
About 1,000 people a year take the GED test in Alachua County, said Mike Sanders, coordinator of adult education for Alachua County Public Schools.
“Usually we get people who are in the ‘reality bites’ kind of situation where they realize, ‘Oops, I can’t get anywhere. I can’t dig a ditch without a high school diploma or a GED,’ ” he said.
Sanders said the district always encourages students to go beyond the GED program.
“A GED or diploma is the very minimum,” he said. “We try to get them into Santa Fe College or something like that to continue their education, because generally speaking the more education you get, the more money you make.”
FloridaWorks helps match job seekers to job openings when they are qualified, and steers them to training and certification programs when they are not.
For example, the agency refers high school dropouts to the Institute for Workforce Innovation, where they can earn certifications in construction.
FloridaWorks Executive Director Kim Tesch-Vaught said about 60 percent of local job listings do not require postsecondary education but often do require certifications.
Occupations that do not require college graduates that are most in demand locally include truck drivers, maintenance and repair techs, and nursing assistants, as well as retail sales and cashiers.
The public school district offers dozens of certifications through Career and Technical Education programs for students before they finish high school. The fields include emergency medical responder, fire safety and auto mechanics at the Professional Academies Magnet at Loften High School, biotech and veterinary assisting at Santa Fe High, business at Buchholz High, hospitality at Gainesville High, and agriculture and medical fields.
The programs also have business partners that give the students a leg up when they’re ready to go to work, such as hotels that work with Gainesville High’s hospitality program, said Dave Edwards, director of career and technical education for Alachua County Public Schools.
Alachua County career technical graduates from 2011-12 had an 86 percent placement rate in either jobs, college or the military compared with 80 percent statewide, according to the Florida Department of Education.
Edwards said such programs are necessary so students have occupational skills since most people don’t earn a bachelor’s degree.
In Florida, 27 percent of the adult population has a bachelor’s degree or higher.
“If we’re going to run the economy in Florida in the near future, we’re going to be running it with high school graduates only,” Edwards said.
Edwards said he has heard anecdotally that local employers with a choice between hiring someone for a part-time job who is not going to college and someone who is working on a master’s or a doctorate will choose the latter “just because that person already has all the communication skills, the writing skills, and you don’t know whether the other person does or not.”
The University of Florida hosts part-time job fairs for employers interested in hiring students.
Heather White, director of the Career Resource Center at UF, said the part-time job fair draws employers from multiple industries. The university itself hires many students, as do retailers, restaurants and hospitals.
She said student hiring is more competitive for full-time, part-time and internships than it was before the recession, but the opportunities are improving.
Winter Haven-based 4 Rivers Smokehouse announced before opening in Butler Plaza on Aug. 28 that it planned to hire college students for a majority of its staff.
Owner John Rivers said the restaurant hired 60 to 65 students out of about 80 employees.
“I worked my way through college, so I know the importance of having a job in order to pay for your school. And what I always appreciate about college students is they’re hungry. They’re working for a purpose. This is what helps fund a dream that goes beyond working for the smokehouse,” he said. “These folks come in, they’re smart, they’re making good decisions, and they’re responsible for their actions.”
Employees with non-college backgrounds tend to be people with experience in the restaurant industry, including management staff, he said.
“We have a lot of amazing talent who are non-college students, and they’re doing a fantastic job,” Rivers said.
Tesch-Vaught said employers often look for people who can work with flexible schedules, which would favor students over, for instance, people with child-care concerns.
On the other hand, she said she has heard from employers who decided they needed more stability after working around students’ spring and summer breaks and training for positions they’re constantly having to refill.
“And when they face that type of decision-making, they come to us, and it opens up opportunities for the non-student,” she said.
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