TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis spoke in Hardee County on Thursday at South Florida State College. At the college, the governor announced $2.3 million would be awarded to six state institutions from the Job Growth Grant Fund.

DeSantis said he was at the college campus in Hardee County to make a big announcement and said he was focused on protecting jobs and that the state of Florida was working hard to keep people in business. He also repeated a common criticism over the cost of higher education.

“Our state university system is ranked number one in the nation for all public university five years in a row,” DeSantis said. “I don’t let them raise tuition because I’m sick of how expensive college can be, so it’s actually affordable in the state of Florida. And we’re proud of doing that and we’re also proud, I mean we’re going to keep Bright Futures for people and we’re proud of that. But, if you look at our economy now, a four year university degree is not always the best way to be successful.”

He said many go “deep into debt” and joked about how students are getting degrees in “zombie studies” and “wonder why the seas don’t part for them.” DeSantis said more than getting a university diploma, skills are the priority for a degree, explaining that difference for the state’s focus on expanding career and technical education.

“It’s not necessarily just having a sheet of paper,” DeSantis said. “It’s really about what skills or knowledge are you being equipped with.” He said since he became governor, the state was working on helping residents enter high demand fields with no debt, and make a “good living very quickly” through fields such as electrical or engineering.

Saying it was important for opportunity and to meet the needs of the economy, particularly with the current levels of historic inflation in the country, DeSantis called out issues with materials costs for affecting his planned budget and criticized the federal government for its efforts to combat the inflation issue not working.

“Think about how much more gas is expensive. It’s not six, seven percent for gas. How much has food gone up? A lot more than seven percent. How much has building materials gone up if you want to construct a new home? Not up seven percent, it’s up a lot higher than that,” DeSantis said. “I had in my governor’s budget, I had to put in more money to fund projects that we had already funded in the previous year because the costs had gone up so much.”

The governor called the inflation issues “a huge problem” and said efforts in Washington to “print more money” would not stop inflation and called the policy “a big, big problem” and that “dumb” federal policies had only made inflation worse, particularly involving the supply chain.

In addition to inflation, the governor said the vaccine mandate the White House had attempted to enact through the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration would have caused job problems, and that Florida had enacted legislation to protect workers, especially in the trucking industry that is so crucial to the supply chain.

He said the trucking industry “was very much dominated by people who have done it for a long time,” and that over the next 10 years, there would be a huge demand for truckers as the older working population retires from the industry.

“The American Trucking Association estimates that we’re going to need, nationwide, 1.1 million new truck drivers over the next 10 years. That’s a huge amount,” DeSantis said. “Let’s say they’re overshooting, say it’s half, that’s still a lot of folks that you need. Right now there is a national shortage, Florida has been helping alleviate that, but you have companies offering signing bonuses, $15,000 signing bonuses to drive trucks.”

The governor said as a result of those offers, there was an opportunity to give Florida residents more opportunity to fill a need and do well for themselves without debt. He said if Washington doesn’t change their policies, the country could be looking at “stagflation like under Jimmy Carter,” but Florida was working to fight off “those significant headwinds.”

“We lead the nation in business formations,” DeSantis said. “We had 114,000 more formations in 2021 than California, and California is almost twice our size. So we’re number one with the bullet, we’re actually up 61% in business formation just since I became governor in 2019.”

He said there was a lot of energy in the state and a lot of companies looking to invest in Florida. DeSantis said the state was where people “were trying ideas” and the state was working hard to meet the needs of the nation.

The governor said they had gone to the college to continue building on previous efforts to improve and expand workforce education in the state, and announced the award of $2.3 million to six state institutions to support commercial driver training and nursing programs to address shortages in trucking and nursing workforces.

“Think about how ridiculous it is what they’re doing, trying to force the nurses with these vaxxes,” DeSantis said. “You know a lot of these nurses have had COVID, a lot of them are younger, some of them have, are trying to have families. There’s a whole bunch of things that they have going on. So, they don’t want to be forced to do it. You have places in other states [where] they will fire nurses because of the vax, but they’re so short-handed that they need people. So, if you’re not vaxxed but you have recovered from COVID and you’re perfectly healthy, you can’t work in the hospital. But, if you’re vaccinated and currently COVID-positive, they will actually bring you back on the job. Now how insane is that? And so you see the shortages anyways. And now that is adding to it. In Florida, we have provided protections, we are not going to let anyone lose their jobs over that.”

For commercial drivers license training and support programs and nursing programs, DeSantis said the $2.3 million would be split between the following schools.

The governor said $135,000 would be awarded to Florida Gateway College and $150,000 to the College of Florida Keys for nursing programs. Separately, $930,000 was awarded to the State College of Florida, $550,000 to Manatee Technical College, $415,000 to South Florida State College and $100,000 to North Florida Technical College for commercial driver training programs.

“When the department of education, when COVID hit, we said we want to utilize that and any funds we may have to really do things along these lines,” DeSantis said. “We did $35 million in 2020 to implement rapid credentials, and these institutions here that are getting some of this money stepped up and helped people get rapid credentials ready, and high wage opportunities. So with the new funding we’re doing now, with the new funding we did in 2020, the programs are expected to help train 1,200 students by May of this year and 2,000 in August of that year.”

The governor said the funding would help increase those numbers “dramatically” and that the programs would have a high return on investment for the cost. He said the state was seeing the return in real time as people fill the positions that are open.

Since 2019, the governor said the workforce initiative was launched and has led to a 50% increase in high-quality post-secondary career and technical education enrollment. The Florida College System has added 11 career and technical education baccalaureate degree programs in fields such as health care and cybersecurity, among others, according to DeSantis.

He said the state was working on increasing manufacturing jobs and the industry itself in Florida, by “producing a strong workforce.” DeSantis said the state was doing a good job and that opportunities were coming, and the state would link those efforts with state colleges. The state has also increased apprenticeship programs, according to DeSantis, now with 50 newly registered programs in Florida, growing the total over 300 programs statewide and 38,000 students enrolled in those programs.

With the rapid credentialing program, DeSantis said the number of credential completions had increased 7% since 2019.

“Florida is here. We see the problems with what’s going on nationally, particularly out of Washington,” DeSantis said. “We want to be part of the solution to those problems, this is going to give a lot of people more opportunity, people are going to make good good money doing this, potentially have very lucrative careers and it’s exciting. We’re also going to make sure with this supply and that we’re able to make sure we’re getting the good to market.”

Then DeSantis introduced a few state leaders to talk about education. He brought up Patrick “Joe” Wright, the chairman of Southeast Milk, a Florida-based cooperative, and member of the SFSC Board of Trustees, to talk about truck driver shortages and how it is impacting the state’s dairy industry.

“Our basic function is we pick up milk on the farms, sell it to processors, and we transport the milk to process,” Wright said. “For example, our milk here in Hardee County typically might go to Publix in Lakeland, Fla. It might go to Deerfield Beach which is a Publix Plant, it might go to McArthur Dairy in Miami.”

Wright said most of the milk his coop transports stays and is consumed in Florida. He said to do this, his company operates a trucking fleet of 400 milk tankers and 135 tractors. He said he would like to do that “with 160 drivers” but they only have 130 drivers due to a “chronic shortage.”

“We’ve had a chronic shortage of drivers for several years now,” Wright said. “We feel like we have found a goldmine in hiring drivers from our driving schools in our state colleges, I will say we’ve had the best luck at South Florida State College, but that’s not the sole college,” with other drivers coming from institutions like Indian River and the College of Central Florida, near the company headquarters in Belleview.

Wright said while the coop used to focus on hiring experienced drivers, pairing new trainees with older, more experienced employees for up to eight weeks, but they’ve had good luck with new drivers, who are well-prepared. He said drivers would make between $65,000 to $80,000 per year, depending on experience and without running up “a huge college debt.”

When DeSantis returned to the podium, he focused on the difference in education goals between generations.

“It is the case, that if you look, particularly in my generation, it was like ‘you have to go to college otherwise you’ll never be successful,'” DeSantis said. “Really that was never true, certainly not true now. But you have people, who go very deep into debt in some of these universities, and you know what, if you end up going to MIT and you’re an engineer, you’re probably going to be okay, right? But you have some others who will get a degree in something that is not necessarily pertinent to anything in the real world, go deep into debt, and then they’ll end up in jobs they could have had right out of high school anyways. That’s probably not what people envisioned when they signed on the dotted line and took out all of that money to pay to get a degree.”

DeSantis said they were excited to provide opportunities to help people get good degrees and jobs without so much debt. Then he introduced SFSC President Dr. Thomas C. Leitzel.

Leitzel said the process to get the funding for the rapid credential program started during the pandemic when Chancellor Mack called to ask if there were programs SFSC could use the funding for.

“This is doing the governor’s agenda. Isn’t it great that workforce matters?” Leitzel asked. “And we’re in a state where the governor leads these workforce efforts. That is just huge and it is such a pleasure to be here.”

Leitzel said the governor recognized the way that colleges could help people keep and get jobs during the pandemic by establishing the grant program, and that Florida College System institutions were positioned to quickly respond to the needs of the state’s work demands. He said thanks to the opportunity given by the state and Mack, SFSC was putting students to work, with the truck driving program giving credentials and certification.

“It’s wonderful for economic development and it’s wonderful for Florida,” Leitzel said. He thanked the governor and education partners for their efforts to train students and help them get jobs, as well as new funding to purchase a truck simulator to help practice driving in the program. “We like to say at South Florida State College, ‘jobs is our favorite four letter word.’ And indeed it is, because we enable our learners to get a job, keep a job, or be promoted in a job, and that’s the bottom line and our governor recognizes it.”

Then DeSantis highlighted various programs at the college, such as culinary and linemen training for electrical utilities. He called the linemen critical to maintaining reliable energy, and said Florida has done better through culinary than anyone else to keep restaurants open during the pandemic.

“We wanted them to be open, we wanted them to actually be able to serve people,” DeSantis said. “You know, Fauci said you should never go inside a restaurant, and that they shouldn’t be able to operate with people coming in. And my view is people are totally able and competent enough to make their own decisions about whether they were going to do that. We’re not going to let these restaurants wither on the vine on the basis of Fauciism.”

DeSantis said the state would protect the businesses and keep them able to open and operate, even as other states shut down again amid the current COVID surge due to the omicron variant. He said a lot of restaurants had moved to Florida since they couldn’t operate where they were, many of them “family business.”

Then the governor had Chancellor Mack take the podium. The chancellor said he would reiterate the points DeSantis made, highlighting graduates of career and technical training programs are seeing the same lifetime earnings as baccalaureate graduates.

“For far too long, I think, CTE, or career and technical education, has been an undersold proposition for students,” Mack said. “It’s always been sort of thought against traditional academics, as a lesser than option, but clearly it’s not.”

He thanked the governor for elevating CTE and workforce training, and said the state had reached a new milestone of 770,000 students were enrolled in CTE, the highest in state history for K-12 grade levels, mostly in high school. Mack also said institutions that would be receiving portions of the $2.3 million grant from the state had programs for adult education, or GED prep.

DeSantis closed out the event by reiterating the excitement the state had for workforce education and infrastructure investments, to have high impact in local communities across the state, then briefly gave a bit of personal news to the gathered public.

“The first lady, yesterday, we completed the final chemotherapy treatment that she has to do,” DeSantis said. “It’s, you know it’s not the most fun thing to see someone go through, but at the end of the day, she’s fought really hard, we think she’s responded really well, she’s still got more stuff to do but it’s a big milestone, because it’s nasty stuff when they’re doing that. So, I just wanted to let everyone know that she got through that, she ran that gauntlet, she’s doing well and we look forward to continue to have good news over the ensuing weeks and months.”