CIVICLAB: Talent Development in Hendry County

By May 9, 2024 News

Big development is coming to rural Hendry County, Fla. Now a center for sugar cane farming and production, this landlocked tropical region is about to become an inland port – home to the $300 mllion Airglades International Airport, a cargo hub that will facilitate the shipment of perishable and other products to and from Latin America.

The aviation and logistics complex, scheduled to be completed in 2026 promises to bring at least 1,400 well-paying jobs to the county, not just with the airport itself, but with a number of related businesses, including shipping, logistics, warehousing, transportation and construction.

The development is a boon for this sparsely populated, oft-neglected county, one of the lowest-income areas in the state with a poverty rate of 23 percent. Yet few of the residents of the area have the training and skills to qualify for these jobs. “And that is a huge problem,” says Tessa LeSage, director of the FutureMakers Coalition, “because people from the two coasts will take these jobs…and the money will leave the county.”

To prevent that kind of exodus – and to ensure that deserving local residents get their share of the new jobs, the FutureMakers Coalition at Collaboratory has brought together educators, employers, community organizations and others to build better systems for boosting educational attainment and improving job training for residents of Hendry and four other southwest Florida counties.

It’s a daunting challenge. A remarkable 31 percent of working-age adults in Hendry County lack a high school diploma or even an equivalency degree. And only 11 percent hold a certificate or degree beyond high school. The barriers to completion are manifold: Residents say they must work to help support their families; they lack transportation, childcare and internet access; they can’t afford to pay application fees. “We have even had people finish programs or get close to finishing, like maybe they got a welding certificate, but they can’t afford the boots to even go to the interview,” says LeSage.

Moreover, a high percentage of the county’s population, immigrants who came to work in the sugar cane fields and processing plants, struggle with the English language. An unknown number, believed to be substantial, are undocumented. All these factors conspire to keep Hendry County residents from getting the education, training and social supports they need to meet the demands of the skilled jobs coming their way.

“We have even had people finish programs or get close to finishing, like maybe they got a welding certificate, but they can’t afford the boots to even go to the interview.”

As an initial step, the partners of the FutureMakers Coalition are concentrating their efforts in two ethnically distinct and particularly struggling communities: Harlem and LaBelle.

Harlem (pop. 2,397), is a majority black community near the shores of Lake Okeechobee that was founded in the 1920s as a housing development for workers at U.S. Sugar Corp’s mill and refinery. Halfway between Fort Myers and West Palm Beach, it sits within some unforgiving terrain.

The Sunset/Ford community in LaBelle (pop. 4,640) is the county seat, founded in the 1880s along the banks of the Caloosahatchee River. Home to the annual Swamp Cabbage Festival, it too provides workers to cultivate sugar cane and work in the refinery and mill, but more of its residents are employed in construction, administrative and educational services and retail. Its population is about 30 percent Hispanic, and about 20 percent of its residents live below the poverty line.

The FutureMakers Coalition is taking advantage of Hendry’s existing resources, including K-12 schools, non-profits and the local workforce board, to find and train navigators – ambassadors, essentially – to meet with residents at their homes, in their workplaces and at other gathering spots, to assess their education levels and specific needs.

The navigators are also conducting exit interviews with those who dropped out of high school or failed to complete a postsecondary credential. What made them quit? What could the school or community have done to have prevented that outcome? What can they do now? The team will then help these students finish their equivalency degrees and connect them with the services and people that will help them complete their degrees and progress beyond.

“We will walk alongside those individuals to help them achieve their goals,” says LeSage, “but also we want to take some time to understand why they didn’t make it in the first place.”

For those who stopped out, she says, “We are going to try to put into practice some kind of intervention like an exit survey that would hopefully prevent them from stopping completely.” The school district will then use that information to make improvements in curriculum, tutoring services and counseling. Schools will also put more thought and effort into exposing students to a variety of careers — a key undertaking since many in the region have little knowledge of fields outside of agriculture.

CivicLab has been a partner of the FutureMakers Coalition since its inception; the organization helped design the partnership, with LeSage benefiting from coaching from the ground up. “I have been doing [CivicLab’s] stakeholder engagement process in every iteration for the past eight years,” she says. But the Hendry initiative, part of CivicLab’s Building Rural Community Systems cohort, is more narrowly focused. “I knew that to seize this opportunity with Hendry, we needed that capacity-building,” LeSage says.

The FutureMakers team is also benefiting from the exchange of information with other members of the rural cohort, both offering and receiving advice. Its navigator program, for instance, was informed by the challenges faced by other rural communities. “I’m a firm believer in looking at what works elsewhere and replicating it here,” says LeSage. “I also really believe in sharing what we learn with others so that others don’t have to go through all the pain and suffering that comes along with figuring stuff out.”

That attitude means LeSage and her team also take full advantage of CivicLab’s coaching and technical assistance – and she urges others to follow suit. Often, LeSage observes, organizations overlook offers of technical assistance because they don’t value it as much as money, or they think they lack the time. Both attitudes, she says, are misguided.

“If you don’t take the time, you are never going to grow your capacity. I’ve had people say that FutureMakers was moving too slowly in the beginning. But I’m thankful I didn’t buckle to that [pressure] and did the work to give it a solid foundation and a good process for working together — because it’s literally what has made it a successful model and made us sustainable.” (FutureMakers recently received a $23 million Good Jobs Challenge grant from the Economic Development Administration of the U.S. Department of Commerce.)

Likewise, CivicLab’s mapping tools have helped FutureMakers visualize the system they are working with so they can change it to better serve Hendry County residents. “We were trying to see who the players were, and what we found is that you can focus on GEDS and credentials or whatever, but you’re going to have to solve every problem because rural communities are so small and everyone wears a million hats,” LeSage says. “We’re really not just doing education and workforce work, we’re serving a whole person, a whole family.”

The FutureMakers team also found, as is common, that instead of solving problems, the various organizations were simply managing them. As a result, Future Makers brought partners together to better understand the problems and how they intersected, and how to address them collaboratively. “We’re trying to create an asset map of what exists now in Hendry County, who’s doing what and where gaps might be, and then the navigators will use those to help a person remove barriers,” says LeSage. “And once we identify gaps, we and the partners will look for funding to fill in some of them.”

Although the Hendry County work is in its early stages, LeSage says she is pleased with how the team is building relationships and valuing their efforts. “I’m really excited about how we can leverage this work to get more resources for Hendry County and to shine a light on how amazing that community is and how much it can flourish if given the opportunity,” she says.

Still, LeSage knows too well, it’s a race against the clock: “I’m scared because the time is limited. We need time for people to be able to get their GEDs. It takes time for people to learn English, and it takes time for people to earn credentials. We don’t want to miss our opportunity given how quickly the economic development is moving in Hendry County.”

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This piece was produced by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Susan Headden.  Susan is a contributing author to CivicLab, a former senior editor at “U.S. News & World Report” magazine, and a freelance education writer based in Washington, D.C.  

Banner photo by Shary Wentworth.