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Polk County Continues to Attract Talent Companies Need for Success

January 29, 2024 News

Florida once again ranked as the top state in Lightcast’s Talent Attraction Scorecard, which analyzes attracting and developing a skilled workforce, and Polk County maintained its Top 10 status, ranking No. 9 for a second year. 

Florida ranked No. 2 in migration and competitive effect, No. 4 in skilled job growth and No. 5 in job growth, according to the eighth annual report. 

Polk County ranked No. 4 in migration, No. 21 in job growth, No. 50 in skilled job growth and #72 in education attainment.  

The state and the county have grown tremendously since the 2020 Census, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, which is why both ranked highly in migration:  

  • Florida’s population has exploded from 21.5 million in 2020 to an estimated 22.6 million in April 2023. 
  • Polk’s population has grown from 725,000 in 2020 to an estimated 787,400 in 2022. About 100 people a day move here. 

“Polk County’s explosive growth has brought many opportunities with it as companies are looking for a central location with a skilled workforce to expand or locate,” said Central Florida Development Council (CFDC) President & CEO Sean Malott. “We, along with the county and other local economic development agencies, have worked hard to attract businesses that continue to diversify our economy while increasing the wage standard for employees here.” 

Among the latest businesses that have moved or expanded in Polk County are Florida Can Manufacturing, Peace River Citrus, Nucor Steel Florida, Publix and International Flavors and Fragrances, building a research and development innovation center. Assure Infusion is building an advanced robotic pharmaceutical plant in Bartow.  

But it goes beyond manufacturing, logistics and warehousing.  

CFDC board Chair Gene Conrad has been developing programs to attract youth to careers in aviation to address that growing segment of Polk County’s economy – and the expected global shortage of pilots. 

“Our website starts with the words ‘Mission: Engage, Educate and Accelerate/The Next Generation of Aerospace Professionals’ for a reason – we have to capture the spirit of fight and showcase it to students at a young age,” said Conrad, President & CEO of the Aerospace Center for Excellence (ACE) on the SUN ‘n’ FUN campus. It’s doing so with programs such as Aviation Summer Camps, Girls in Aviation Day and Cookies ’n Convos, a youth speaker series that invites people in the industry to discuss their professions with students.  

A Skilled Workforce

Polk County’s seven colleges and universities – Polk State and Florida Southern colleges, and Florida Polytechnic, Southeastern, Webber International, Warner and Keiser universities – are continually updating their curricula to meet industry needs to ensure the county stays relevant. Their students graduate ready to enter the workforce.  

“At Polk State College, we have built long-lasting relationships with our local businesses and stakeholders, including our local economic development councils, to ensure that the college meets industry demands” and provides a skilled workforce, said President Angela Garcia Falconetti, a past CFDC board chair. 

The Competitive Effect – Engineering & Computer Science Talent

Florida’s 12th public university, Florida Polytechnic University in Lakeland, offers hands-on, research-based degrees in everything from math and technology to several types of engineering and data sciences. It is the only state university dedicated to careers in STEM fields. 

Its professors with advanced research in fields such as nanotechnology, rare earth element recovery, and electrical and computer engineering have been named to Stanford University’s annual list of the world’s top 2% of scientists

One of those professors, Muhammad Rashid, a renowned leader in electrical and computer engineering, and his wife, Fatema, donated $250,000 to inspire and improve the future of education in his field. With a matching gift of $250,000, the money created the university’s first endowed chair, the Dr. Muhammad Harunur Rashid Chair of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department.  

The Competitive Effect – Tourism Talent

Staying relevant is critical, and with tourism rebounding after the pandemic, it’s more important than ever. 

Southeastern, Warner, Keiser and Polk State all offer degrees in the hospitality industry. Southeastern launched its program in Fall 2020 and it’s already one of the most sought-after degrees in the business school. 

“With the population boom in Polk County, tourism and hospitality jobs are on the rise and we added the program to meet the needs of the industry,” Jeffrey Paul, dean of the Jannetides College of Business, Communication & Leadership, said shortly after the opening.  

More than 105.2 million people visited Florida in the first three quarters of 2023; of those, 96.4 million traveled within the United States while 6 million traveled from overseas and 2.8 million from Canada, according to the governor’s office. Those tourists spent money, too – more than 11% more than the third quarter of 2019.  

The Competitive Effect – Health Talent

With a growing – and aging – population, the medical, health sciences and medical equipment manufacturing segments continue to grow in Polk County. Finding enough skilled workers to fill open positions can be difficult, but most of the county’s institutions of higher education offer programs to keep the pipeline flowing. 

Florida Southern’s School of Nursing and Health Sciences continues its longstanding tradition of providing skilled nurses to the area’s hospitals and clinics.  

Polk State College’s nursing program recently “launched an externship with BayCare through which faculty members work with hospital doctors and staff at the bedside to bring best practices back to the students,” Falconetti said.  

In October 2023, Webber opened its new Health Sciences Center, home to its Bachelor of Science (B.S.) in Nursing and B.S. in Occupational Therapy Assistant (OTA) programs, giving students access to cutting-edge learning facilities and equipment.  

Webber is looking to graduate quality healthcare professionals who can fill the growing need for such professionals. According to its press release, Polk County will have 4,788 registered nursing positions open by 2028, an increased demand of 1.25%. It also will see an increased demand of 3.25% for OTAs. 

Senior Vice President of Operations Jay Culver said at the opening: “This Health Sciences Center is far more than just bricks and mortar; it stands as a powerful symbol of our unwavering commitment to advancing healthcare education. It embodies the culmination of years of relentless effort, unwavering dedication, and fruitful collaboration among our esteemed faculty, dedicated staff, passionate students and our broader community.” 

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