TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was at Northwest Florida State College in Niceville to present $2.8 million from the state’s Job Growth Grant Fund to pay for a new diesel mechanic vocational training program at the school.

Starting the news conference off, DeSantis mentioned multiple appearances he’d made across Florida to present similar grant awards for a variety of programs aimed at improving infrastructure and creating jobs in the state.

The grant awards tour kicked off in Winter Haven on Monday with a $9.4 million pair of checks for Polk County and was followed by several others, including in St. Pete Beach.

“We’ve been doing a lot particularly this week and the rest of the week to highlight initiatives we’re doing to help with job growth, a lot of it involves infrastructure but a lot of it also involves workforce training,” DeSantis said. “If you look at Florida and where we are in relation to other states, it’s clear where other states have really fallen down over the last year and a half Florida continues to do better and better.”

“Part of what I think, when you look at the different things that we’re offering you see a lot of stuff, people will move from different parts of the country move different types of businesses here,” such as finance or aerospace “particularly in Cape Canaveral.”

DeSantis said he believes that for “core function” industries, “There’s huge demand for skilled employees, what better place to have a lot of this based than the state of Florida? We have a great business environment. We don’t have state income tax and we won’t as long as I’m kicking.”

Building up to the reason for his appearance at Northwest Florida State College, DeSantis focused on education. The governor said Florida was ranked number three in education according to Education Week for K-12 schools, and touted the state’s high ranking for public education quality across the United States.

Shifting to higher education and workforce needs, the governor said there should be a priority to making education for job skills more accessible, like initiatives at NWFSC.

“If people know that we’re committed to not just university education, but vocational education, that is going to end up telling people, you’re going to have a lot of people to fill a lot of these important jobs,” the governor said. “I know here at Northwest Florida State College, you have things to help people that want to go into the trucking industry, people to operate a lot of these heavy machines, and I think that’s something that’s in high demand.”

The governor said that while “brick and ivy” schools and traditional universities are still good, it’s not the only option or “the best course of action” for all students or careers.

“There’s huge huge demand,” DeSantis said, for jobs like trucking and other vocational opportunities, instead of the types of professions that come from more traditional four-year degrees. He said with vocational education, you can get into the workforce where there’s huge demand and workers can make good money without “going deep into debt.”

“My generation, everyone was saying if you don’t go to college you’re a failure,” DeSantis said. “That’s just not true.”

The governor said that the state doesn’t want to tell people that vocational or skills training and education “isn’t as good” and that they want to provide opportunities for people to get good jobs and to meet the demand for those types of work.

“Today’s announcement really builds off of that insight, it builds off of what they’ve already done at Northwest Florida State College, so we’re announcing through the Governor’s Job Growth Grant Fund for Northwest Florida State College, $2.8 million to fund a new diesel mechanic training program,” DeSantis said.

He said there was an obvious demand for the workers who operate and drive trucks, with 70 percent of the country’s commercial freight shipping carried by those vehicles, making a high demand for those who can repair and maintain them.

DeSantis said he thinks there will be a 20 percent increase in demand for mechanics in Okaloosa County over the next five years and Walton County, with workers expected to make about $60,000 per year. With the grant, the governor said they’ll be able to provide young people with the opportunity “to do well with this,” and to meet a clear demand “that isn’t going away.”

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that from 2020 to 2030, the number of openings for diesel service technicians and mechanics is expected to grow by eight percent. The governor’s office says that number is even higher in Walton and Okaloosa Counties, showing an 18 percent increase in demand in the next five years.

The governor referred to people driving and moving to Florida from several other states, and that the state was able to “protected a lot of jobs here and protected businesses,” and that the secret about the Panhandle was out, as both a destination for vacation and a business location or potential home.

“What we’re doing in Florida, our goal is to be number one in workforce education by 2030,” DeSantis said. “We’re now doing better and better…this goal is really really significant.” He said that since 2019, enrollment in post-secondary career and technical education has increased by nearly 50 percent.

Fifty new apprenticeships have been added, according to the governor. He said that he wants to make it easier for seniors in high school to receive training and enter the workforce right out of school, particularly in their home communities.

“We haven’t missed a beat,” DeSantis said about high schoolers receiving industry certifications for aircraft maintenance but also still taking part in AP English and other high-quality educational standards. The main point he made was that the programs and college tracks were not mutually exclusive, allowing students to choose what’s best for their own education and their own futures.

DeSantis talked inflation and shipping delays and “the things coming out of Washington,” saying “We don’t even know if kids will be able to get toys for Christmas,” and mentioned rising gas prices, but said he was confident that if the state continues with good policy, they can “empower” residents and “beat those headwinds.” He said the state had offered up its own ports to handle some of that demand for shipping needs to be met.

President of NWFSC, Dr. Devin Stephenson thanked the governor for his efforts and spoke briefly about educational outcomes in the state’s higher education institutions after a brief photo op with the governor and other college administrative staff and leaders.

“We sort of feel like a Jerry Maguire movie, the governor’s come and showed us the money,” said Stephenson. He started off by welcoming the governor to the Emerald Coast. “I think you’ll all agree, this is Ron DeSantis country, right. We know that it takes partnerships to make good things happen and this college has a very strong commitment to continuing the pursuit of excellence with our many partners, realizing that it really doesn’t matter who gets the credit just so we make things happen.”

Stephenson said he reviewed the governor’s executive order from 2019 that pledged to make the state number one for workforce education by 2030. To that point, he rattled off statistics about what NWFSC has done since the order was signed.

“In the last few years, this college has established education programs, like you wanted us to do” Stephenson said to the governor directly. “In culinary arts, hospitality management, medical laboratory technician, physical therapist assistant, cyber security, construction trades, commercial drivers’ license, airframe and power plant mechanic with our great partner here, Dr. Paul Hsu, and we’ve expanded our engineering, technology, and welding programs.”

Stephenson said that one welding program graduate was able to parlay his training into a job with SpaceX and Elon Musk, doing work on the company’s autonomous drone ship. Stephenson said that it was “…demonstrating clearly that career education can be transferrable to other sectors.” He said they’ve become more intentional with how they measure outcomes and improving efficiencies with a focus on student success.

Per the governor’s directive, Stephenson said that NWFSC has also created a scholarship program for completing higher education. The program assists students who get within 10 percent of degree completion and helps to “clear any financial hurdles to complete their education.”

He said they’re working with Walton and Okaloosa counties’ school district officials to raise expectations on opportunities in career education and a “pathway to a high-wage, high demand sector job.”

Stephenson said the community was expecting them to provide education that supports 21st century jobs, and that with the governor’s support and the grants from the state, they would be able to extend the state’s workforce goals with a pathway to immediate employment, and thanked Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran and other colleagues in the Dept. of Education who support expanding training for targeted industries.

Lori Kelley, the Chair of the NWFSC Board of Trustees spoke next.

“As Dr. Stephenson stated, the transit technician program is but one way the college is working to address the workforce needs and position the region for quality growth,” Kelley said. “Programs like the transit technician program help lift students and families so that they can fulfill their potential, providing positive long-term impacts for generations to come.”

Kelley said that while the programs are expensive to launch, unique community partnerships and funding programs like the Job Growth Grant allow the college to be “innovative and responsive” to the needs of their community. She said that 85 percent of the students remain in the community after degree completion, impacting the economy of the area in a positive way, and thanked the state leaders for the “generous grant.”

Sec. Dane Eagle from the Department of Economic Opportunity was the last to speak before the governor returned to the podium to close out the event.

“The governor’s Job Growth Grant Fund was one of his top priorities this past session. An issue that we’ve been driving to make sure that we’re attracting all businesses that want to come to Florida to be able to come and invest, and also existing businesses to grow and thrive,” Eagle said. “We look at infrastructure, we look at workforce training to areas that businesses need to be able to recruit from the workforce. So this announcement today is crucial to the governor’s mission to not only make Florida one of the most competitive and open for business states in the nation…but to meet that 2030 goal of workforce education and training.”

Eagle said the $2.8 million announcement could go to a bigger goal of over $4 million for the diesel mechanic program and transit technician training, while also supporting the existing CDL program. He said with the supply chain being disrupted during the pandemic, the state needs a workforce that can meet the transport and mechanical needs “more than ever.”

The secretary said it would support 500 people going through the program, “improving not only their lives, but their families'” and also spread far and wide through the community and the southeastern United States.

When DeSantis took the podium again, he focused on the statistics that Stephenson had referenced, and praised the state’s economic power during the pandemic, particularly in the hotel industry while highlighting the state’s revenue defying lowered expectations with hundreds of millions of dollars each month in higher levels of revenue.

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