Dr. Tonjua Williams, president of St. Petersburg College, is not one to sit idly by while she sees serious holes in Pinellas County’s workforce readiness.

Gaps in Tampa Bay’s workforce, especially related to tech and specialized manufacturing skills, have been widely reported. So too have the challenges of retaining homegrown talent against the draw of larger tech ecosystems like Atlanta, Boston or San Francisco, or relocating businesses with large skilled labor pool needs, like Amazon’s HQ2.

“We need to enhance our talent, because we don’t want our workforce to leave,” Williams said Monday at the Vinoy Business Alliance Luncheon. “We’re losing businesses because we are not able to give them trained people who can do the work.”

“That is unacceptable to me,” Williams said, “it’s a slap in the face for education. That’s something we need to fix and address. We don’t want anyone not having the workforce they need.”

“The problem is that we have USF, Pinellas Technical College, Eckerd College, St. Pete College, and we still have hundreds of thousands of people who are undee-educated and underemployed in this county,” Williams explained. In this case, workforce development and inclusive economic prosperity go hand in hand. It’s one thing to point out the problem, but it’s a whole different ball game to propose a solution.

Williams presented a four-pronged plan to create and facilitate an educational ecosystem that gives both local higher education institutions and workforce a seat at the table. An integrated educational ecosystem would create career paths based on workforce needs that would have clear routes through Pinellas County Schools, Pinellas Technical College, St. Pete College, and University of South Florida St. Petersburg. The ecosystem would create plans that connect skills and stack credentials from each institution, to guide students through each institution and into the next without wasting time or money.

“Our goal is to partner with the technical colleges and add stackable credentials to where [students] started,” explained Williams. “We take it a step higher. And these actually fit into degrees, so when you do these certificates, you’re not losing time – these actually apply to one of the degrees the college offers.”

St. Pete College has already been collaborating with workforce, as well as Pinellas Technical College and USFSP, to create these kinds of programs. SPC was one of the first community colleges in Florida to offer workforce baccalaureate degrees (bachelor’s degrees), for in-demand fields like nursing or dental hygiene, thanks to partnerships with USFSP. Now, the college is seeking to formalize agreements and give students more options to gain access to education.

After a thorough listening process with employers throughout Pinellas County, SPC recently began four new in-demand programs in partnership with USFSP: Baccalaureate degrees in cyber security, respiratory care, human services, and digital media technology. They’re also offering certificate programs in cybersecurity, big data, patient care technician, medical laboratory technician and advanced manufacturing.

“Our residents can move and make more money through these educational systems,” Williams said. “Students can increase skill attainment, reduce generational poverty, and increase economic prosperity.” SPC graduates already have the highest average annual income upon graduation of any Florida state college, at $51,248. That’s well above the area median income for St. Petersburg, $36,093 for a single person. Williams believes this upward economic mobility should be available to more people, and can be through an improved educational ecosystem.

The four steps to creating that system include: A formalized agreement between various institutions and workforce; a countywide ecosystem task force; industry cluster sessions to understand workforce needs and training needed for fields like healthcare and manufacturing; and finally, a communication plan.

“SPC does not want to be the college on the corner,” Williams said, “but the college in the community. We’re invested, we want to be the solution. We want to bring best practices to the table.”