Polk County is at the center of talent migration within the state, drawing skilled workers from far and near.

According to Emsi, a labor market data company, it is ranked 12th out of 3,000 counties nationwide with populations exceeding 100,000 that have seen the highest talent migration since 2016.

Polk also ranks 19th in Skilled Job Growth and 98th in Overall Job Growth.

In its Annual Talent Attraction Scorecard, based on data from before the pandemic hit, Emsi noted that more people are working remotely — searches for remote jobs increased 175% from November 2019 to November 2020, according to Remoters.com — and moving from big metro areas to markets with populations between 250,000 and 1 million, a trend accelerated by the global pandemic. Polk County’s population was estimated at 725,000 in 2019, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, a 20% growth in the last decade. Polk County ranks No. 1 in Florida’s net migration and No. 8 in the country.

Emsi bases the rankings in its Scorecard on six metrics: migration, growth of jobs and skilled workers, regional competitiveness, job openings, and education attainment.

“I think the pandemic made people take a closer look at where they choose to live, and with more people working from home, they are choosing to do so in a warm, sunny climate like ours with plenty of opportunities,” said Helene Sanford, chief human resources officer at Saddle Creek Logistics Services in Lakeland.

But there’s so much more, including strong economic development, a burgeoning talent pipeline and an education system to serve all.

“Polk County is an attractive place for individuals due to the high quality of life and the numerous job opportunities. Our community boasts connectivity to the larger Central Florida region and continues to reap the benefits of growth in the areas of manufacturing, transportation and logistics, healthcare, and financial services. These industries provide opportunities and career ladders for individuals at all skill levels,” said Angela Garcia Falconetti, president of Polk State College and chair of the board of the Central Florida Development Council.

Sanford added: “Polk County’s strong economic growth coupled with its proximity to two major cities with wonderful attractions make it an ideal place for working families.”

Talent Pipeline

Polk County is home to seven institutions of higher learning and a variety of other programs that offer workforce training, all of which “provide opportunities for people to reach their academic and career goals, allowing us to continue to grow a robust talent pipeline,” Falconetti said. That pipeline assures businesses that their labor needs will be met.

“Our county benefits from strong partnerships that support economic development growth making it not only attractive but also easy for businesses to make the decision to be here,” Falconetti said. “New companies including Nucor and Prime Air have been attracted to our region because of both the existing talented workforce and the colleges that are ready to partner with them to train employees.”

For instance, Polk State College partnered with Nucor Steel to train individuals for its Frostproof plant, which will employ more than 250 people in high-wage jobs, Falconetti said. In addition, “Polk State Aerospace is also proud of its graduates flying for Amazon through Southern Airways who fly in and out of Lakeland Linder International Airport, where Amazon Air opened its regional hub in July.”

With demand for a highly-skilled workforce increasing, the ability to meet industry needs starts with quality education, she said.

“We develop degree and short-term training programs that lead to national certifications hand-in-hand with local employers. We partner to provide seamless pathways that allow students to build upon their skills, from Polk County public schools to college to higher degrees at universities. And we know that many of our students remain in Polk County after graduation -– that is why we take our role in the economic development of our region so seriously,” Falconetti said. About 70% of Polk State students remain in Polk County after graduation, students “who will lead our community forward to future success.”

Educational institutions, industry leaders and community governments and organizations must continue their innovative partnerships to ensure a highly-skilled workforce, Falconetti said.  All areas working together “ensure skilled jobs find their way to our region to increase opportunities and enhance the quality of life for our residents.”

Job Growth

Mirca Mercado, vice president/CFO of Labor Solutions, said the cost of living and housing in Polk County make it an attractive location for new businesses to consider.

And Polk’s location between Tampa and Orlando makes it “very easy for companies to ship their materials/goods via those cities from here,” she said, citing major roadways like State Road 60, U.S. 27 and Interstate 4. “We’re seeing an increase in manufacturing and construction jobs in our area. We have increased the number of open positions in our organization. Therefore, we hope to be able to assist as many people as possible in our community (including our clients) by filling these open positions.”

Manufacturing businesses like Nucor, Carvana, Amazon, Pamlico Air and Coca-Cola are relocating to, expanding or opening in our area, she said. “Our community is recruiting/welcoming larger companies that require more advanced skills.”

Susan Hames, business development manager at Rita Staffing, agreed that great weather, location, rail service, warehouses ready to be leased and competitive wages all benefit our area. “And our governor has kept us open for business” during the pandemic, she said.

Rita Staffing helps place hundreds of temporary workers each year, some of whom will be hired permanently, she said. “We also do Professional Placement and help many people in Direct Hire positions that have relocated to the area.”

Job growth is across the board, with manufacturing, production and the food industry growing the fastest, she said. “We have so many companies moving to Polk County. It is a great place to do business and we make it easy to come here.”

Saddle Creek’s Sanford said she thinks the logistics industry is fueling much of the local growth. “During the year of COVID, geographies like Central Florida, which were already producing more critical infrastructure jobs, flourished even more as those became the jobs that continued to thrive through the public health crisis.”

This year, Saddle Creek “is likely to see about 10% job growth nationwide and likely high single digits in the Southeast,” Sanford said. The company has already doubled the 2,500 associates it had in 2015. “While much of that growth is in jobs in our warehouses, such as forklift operators and customer service reps, it also includes more management positions and in support functions like IT and human resources.”

More growth is expected, Falconetti said.

“Through strategic planning and collaboration across all sectors, Polk County is positioned for continued growth that will increase the number of skilled jobs,” Falconetti said. “We must continue to advance projects that ensure our growth is responsible and that the infrastructure is in place to support both new businesses and the growth of those that are already here.”