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New Educational Partnership Promises To Train A New, Diverse Workforce For Jacksonville Companies

Ryan Benk

A new partnership between JEA, Florida State College at Jacksonville and Sandalwood High School is promising to prepare more young people for a career in cyber security.

Officials hope the new program helps companies train a more diverse workforce for the jobs of tomorrow. The “early college partnership” will allow Sandalwood students to earn an associate’s degree in cyber security by the time they graduate high school.

Students will get hands-on training, mentorship and hiring preference from either Deutsche Bank or public utility JEA upon graduation.

JEA CEO Paul McElroy said the new program, which will train 25 students a year, fits neatly within the utility’s core values.

“Our vision is to be a premiere service provider, of course, but more importantly as we are part of the community, to be a valued asset,” he said.

One core tenet of JEA’s value system is diversity. In a letter to employees, McElroy set forth the goal of “mirroring the community” that they serve. But employees’complaints of racial discrimination exposed a pattern of fewer and fewer black workers’ being hired or promoted.

After theleaking of two racially charged emails circulated among JEA employees, JEA Chief Human Resources Officer Angie Hiers told WJCT it's difficult to find qualified workers in traditionally underrepresented communities.

JEA diversity manager Pat Sams said educational programs like this one will help change that.

“Programs like this offer a huge opportunity for these students, but for these kinds of programs, may not have an opportunity to have an internship. Regardless of what socioeconomic or ZIP code you live in, that’s huge,” she said.

Duval School Board Vice Chair Ashley Smith Juarez’s district includes Sandalwood. She said the school board is well aware of educational and professional disparities in Jacksonville.

“Access is certainly important to us and then looking at the diversity of the students who participate is equally important,” she said. “ At Englewood’s partnership with Vistakon, we have tried specifically to recruit minority students and young women, similarly here being in the (science, technology, engineering and math) fields.”

Reporter Ryan Benk can be reached at, 904-358-6319 or on Twitter @RyanMichaelBenk.

Ryan Benk is a former WJCT News reporter who joined the station in 2015 after working as a news researcher and reporter for NPR affiliate WFSU in Tallahassee.