State director discusses CareerSource merger concerns
The local CareerSource affiliate held its first board meeting since state leadership voted to consolidate Pinellas and Hillsborough County’s workforce development agencies in February.
Adrienne Johnston, president and CEO of CareerSource Florida, participated in Wednesday’s discussion virtually. Several board members offered a laundry list of concerns over the merger.
No one spoke in the initiative’s favor, which now needs the governor’s approval. Despite Johnston’s best attempts to alleviate some of the trepidation, the CareerSource Pinellas Board of Directors unanimously voted to issue a formal letter opposing the consolidation.
“We recognize that change can be difficult,” Johnston told attendees. “And changes of this magnitude will result in challenges, as well as opportunities. We are committed at the state to ensuring that local workforce development boards have the information, technical assistance, tools and resources to transition and transform.”
The once-conjoined agencies split in September 2018, a few months after CareerSource Hillsborough’s board fired Ed Peachey, the former joint CEO. Reports that he inflated job placement numbers to receive significant bonuses emerged that summer.
The regional CareerSource previously featured two separate boards and one administration governing a singular entity. Johnston explained a newly merged agency would feature a combined board of directors.
“One of those key goals that we are really pushing here is that there is equal representation among all partners, all counties,” Johnston added. “I know a fear among many is that this will be a takeover over one board over the other, and that is not the intention.”
While that might not be the intention, Johnston later noted Hillsborough and Pinellas officials would have to decide how to allocate board positions. Several speakers expressed their disbelief that county representatives would agree to split anything evenly, and Hillsborough is home to about 500,000 more residents.
Here are some other concerns over a merger:
Esther Matthews, small business owner and local NAACP president, noted the preponderance of workers who rely on public transportation. She said it would take a two-hour bus ride to reach Tampa’s Westshore District from South Pinellas, and any CareerSource shift would automatically exclude a significant group of people.
Johnston used transportation agencies as an example of regional organizations providing an expanded benefit. Matthews and others noted that the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority is now disbanding, at the state legislature’s request, after years of failed initiatives and funding issues.
“Those in the most underserved areas of Pinellas County do not go to Hillsborough County,” Matthews said. “They don’t go. You might as well say they are going to Puerto Rico.”
Johnston relayed that no clients would have to cross Tampa Bay for services. CareerSource Pinellas locations would remain, and she said residents with transportation could take advantage of added opportunities in Hillsborough.
“It’s also a benefit to employers on both sides of the bridge, because now you’re expanding the talent pool,” she said.
Former board chair Jack Geller said the two counties have competed for “everything that exists” for years. He used Tampa and St. Petersburg’s leadership vying to build a new home for the Tampa Bay Rays as the latest example.
He also noted that CareerSource clients, if so inclined, can already cross the bay for services or opportunities. Like others, Geller said Pinellas features considerably more manufacturing and tourism jobs.
Johnston reiterated that consolidation would create challenges, but state leadership will “leverage the best that both counties have to offer to our customers and our businesses.”
Workforce development agencies receive federal dollars according to a county-based allocation formula. Johnston said the new entity would receive the same funding earmarked for Hillsborough and Pinellas.
She said that underscores a need for “maximum participation” among stakeholders at upcoming planning sessions. Barclay Harless, a loan officer for a regional bank and former board chair, asked if state officials could provide equal representation and resource assurances.
Harless said he could “easily identify” with someone from the Hillsborough side believing they should receive more funding due to the significant population discrepancy. “These are arguments I can see happening on that board, very clearly,” he added.
Johnston explained that CareerSource Florida and the state Department of Economic Opportunity would provide administrative policies and monitoring efforts to ensure compliance. She said the consolidated board could maximize resources by combining administrative operations and pooling money.
Kevin Knutson represents Pinellas County Economic Development on the board. He noted that CareerSource Florida used poor examples of cross-bay cooperation, including its now-defunct transportation agency, to inform its decision.
“I would just suggest you look at the comments you’re getting today,” Knutson said. “Because that’s not going to ring true to anyone.”
While Hillsborough and Pinellas County Commissioners will vote on the merger, the decision ultimately rests with the governor. Stakeholders, and the public, have until April 7 to provide realignment feedback.
CareerSource Florida is already preparing for the merger, and if approved, the local workforce development agencies will consolidate in 2024.