FutureMakers’ Navigators working with Reconnectors to move workforce needle

FORT MYERS, Fla. –   Just 62 percent of students who start a degree or certificate program finish their program within six years, according to the National Student Clearinghouse, a nonprofit verification and research organization that tracked first-time college students who enrolled in fall 2015 with the intent of pursuing a degree or certificate.

Southwest Florida is in high demand of qualified workers in a multitude of industries and the need is only growing. Since 2014, FutureMakers Coalition has been working toward a goal of transforming Southwest Florida’s workforce by increasing the percentage of working age (25-64 years old) adults who hold post-high school credentials to 55 percent by 2025. Positive progress towards achieving the goal has been made. In 2013, 39 percent qualified and that number increased to 43.7 percent in 2021.

But more work needs to be done.

In 2022, the Navigator program was created as part of a $300,000 grant from Bank of America funded by the bank’s multi-year commitment to further FutureMakers Coalition’s goal of transforming Southwest Florida’s workforce.

Through the grant and other funding, FutureMakers Coalition Navigators began requesting and seeking referrals to connect adults needing training programs to acquire better paying jobs as well as students who previously attended college but did not complete a credential or certification. These referrals are called Reconnectors.

“Navigators are here to help adults who need to reconnect with education or training to get into well-paying jobs to change their lives, to change the lives of their families and hopefully to help build our workforce, build our businesses and grow a strong economy,” said Tessa LeSage, FutureMakers director, Collaboratory, which is serving as the backbone organization for the FutureMakers Coalition “Navigators are there to remove barriers. They’re there to help make the system work for a group of people that the system currently isn’t 100 percent designed for. Navigators walk alongside them to make sure that it’s working as best as it can to get them their credential and into a job.

According to LeSage, last year they had 210 Reconnectors that they were serving through the Navigator program. Today they are over 1,200. 

Reconnector Mary Ditton started her college career in 1973 as a fine art major but she left school her junior year due to a family emergency and never completed a degree. In 1988, Mary returned to college to study pre-med but again dropped out after becoming pregnant with her son.

Through the years she has lived across the U.S. and had many careers including as an actor, fitness instructor, massage therapist, rehabilitation counselor and more. After COVID shut down the spa she was working at in California in 2021, she moved to Bonita Springs.

It was during a six-week workshop through the Collier County Public Schools called Grow 2 Teach that she met FutureMakers Coalition Navigator Coordinator April Mesa. 

“The partnership between Collier County public schools and FutureMakers Coalition represents a shared commitment to promoting access to educational growth opportunities and supporting workforce development in the region,” said John Breaultsenior director, Talent Management for Collier County Public Schools. “By working together, we can create a more robust and inclusive talent pipeline for the benefit of our community as a whole.”

The goal of the program is to give a better understanding of the teaching profession and to transition non-instructional staff into college degree programs with the intention of graduating from an education program and working in an instructional capacity within CCPS. 

With the help of Mesa and others, Mary was able to find an online college that would accept most of her prior credits, fill out the FAFSA (required for any federal student aid) to receive a Pell Grant as well as other funding to be able to return to her bachelor’s degree studies.

Mary now works full-time as teaching assistant at Collier County’s Phoenix Alternative School and is in her first semester with Grand Canyon University taking classes online with plans to graduate in June 2025 with a bachelor’s degree in educational studies.

“At age 68 I certainly didn’t think I’d be back in school,” Mary said. “I love working with the spectrum of autism and I find extreme joy in helping these kids. I’m so grateful to April and her team for seeking me out and helping me navigate how to finally finish my degree and help me find financial assistance. I love my work; I love school and I can’t wait to see where the future takes me.”  

Clewiston resident and reconnector Denijah Rochester started a career change at age 31 after years in law enforcement.

“The mental toll law enforcement takes on your body as a deputy was challenging,” she said.

Wanting to compete a degree to become a licensed practical nurse, Denijah’s advisor at iTECH Glades campus told her about FutureMakers and set her up with one of their Navigators.

“Going back for a new degree was a financial toll on my family,” said the married mother of three sons. “My navigator Jennifer guided me through filling out the FAFSA form and getting a Pell grant and other funding through Career Source.”

Now a year later, Denijah is getting ready to graduate at the end of September and will begin looking for a position, hopefully in a local hospital setting. She plans to continue her studies at a local college to eventually become a registered nurse.

“Don’t stop. Just do it,” she said when asked what advice she would give others wanting to further their education. “Don’t keep questioning it. I’m very religious so just have faith in God and go out there with any assistance that’s available because there are things out there that help funding. Just keep pushing to be the best you.”

After Moore Haven resident Jonathan Leon, another reconnector, received his associate degree, he couldn’t figure out what he wanted to do so he never pursued furthering his education.

After working a couple jobs, he decided he needed to further his education and pursue a career in heavy equipment. Now in his mid 20s and working in the mechanic shop at Love’s Travel Stop, he heard a lot of his coworkers talking about taking courses at iTECH.

“I became interested in becoming a diesel mechanic especially after hearing about how my coworkers liked iTECH so I mustered up the courage to enroll,” he said. “I also like that the Moore Haven campus is close to me.”

FutureMakers Navigator Jennifer Cosby helped Jonathan with federal funding and scholarships to help pay for his courses.

“I’m about halfway through my courses and I’d really like to work for Caterpillar once I’ve completed my studies,” he said. “I’m grateful I get this chance. iTECH is a great place to learn and develop a foundation.”

If you are an adult who is ready to take your first step to start your career or attain a higher paying job but need additional training and education to qualify, FutureMakers Navigators are here for you. Navigators will help you explore your options and provide supports to help you reach your goals.

Navigator services are free and include assistance with exploring degrees and certificates; college application and enrollment assistance; financial aid application assistance; transfer planning; career exploration; transcript evaluations; one-on- one advising; college and career presentations and connection to employers.

“Anyone can refer someone to a Navigator and everyone should be thinking about who is the person in their workforce right now that can benefit from a Navigator,” said LeSage. “Who is the person that you interviewed recently who would be a great member of your team if they just had a little bit of training? Who is the person that called you last week and calls every month because they can’t pay their utility bill and they need assistance? We can help remove barriers, get them trained and into a job but we need companies, social service providers and individuals to refer them to a Navigator.”

More information on the program and to connect to a Navigator, visit  https://www.futuremakerscoalition.com/navigators/.

FutureMakers Coalition is a regional collective impact initiative that has been designated a Talent Hub by Lumina Foundation in partnership with The Kresge Foundation to support local efforts to increase educational attainment. Formed in 2015 around existing regional collaborations, the Coalition is committed to creating a cradle-to-career pathway to ensure success for traditional students and adult learners. FutureMakers Coalition was one of Lumina Foundation’s 75 national Community Partners in Attainment and is a member of the National Talent Network. Collaboratory provides backbone/administrative support to FutureMakers Coalition.

FutureMakers Coalition encourages businesses to join and invest in sustaining this community-changing initiative by visiting https://www.futuremakerscoalition.com or emailing Tessa LeSage at tlesage@collaboratory.org.