How an education veteran is changing the odds for the future workforce of Tampa Bay

Chris Pello, an educator and school operations specialist with more than 20 years’ of experience in the Tampa Bay area, has spent his career creating opportunities for students with cognitive challenges. 

Recognizing a dearth of choices for children with a range of special needs, from autism to Down’s syndrome, Pello and his wife, Bernadette, founded Livingstone Academy in 2003. Under their leadership as co-chief executive officers, the nonprofit organization has grown to four locations serving more than 600 students in Brandon and the greater Tampa Bay area.

Now, Pello is turning his expertise to a new challenge: meeting Florida’s workforce shortages head-on by offering courses and certifications in high-need, high-skilled trade areas.

Last fall, he teamed up with Chuck Burgess, CEO of High 5, a community sports and recreation facility, and Jeffrey Stone, a local entrepreneur, to launch Florida Trade Academy.

FTA offers flexible programming—online or in-person—to train young people, or those looking to change careers, in a variety of specialized trade occupations. 

“We literally saw a need and we wanted to be a part of filling that need. It was just a natural fit for me to go from running our K-12 schools, for the last 20 years, to now opening up a post-high school program to continue to give our young adults exceptional opportunities,” Pello says. “And I think that’s the responsibility we have as educators and as professionals.” 

According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, in the last five years, the number of students entering trade schools has increased by more than 100%. Yet, as Pello points out, “60% of students fail out of community college in the state of Florida before their two years. Young people think they only have two choices: college or the military. But those aren’t for everyone. There should be plenty of opportunities before them, and a skilled trade is a fantastic career path with a high demand for well-trained, qualified individuals.”

Pello credits Gov. Ron DeSantis’ workforce development initiative, “Get There Faster,” a $75 million dollar investment toward expanding access to Career and Technical Education courses, post-secondary credentials and work-based learning programs, as part of the funding impetus for FTA, but believes community collaboration will be the key to their success. 

FTA has already formed several partnerships, from the Association of Builders and Contractors to the Florida Department of Transportation to a variety of local businesses but welcomes the opportunity to make more connections.

Such connections benefit the entire workforce community, as Pello explains, “At FTA, we’re also teaching executive functioning skills, the skills necessary to be good employees, not just trade skills leading to certification. So for the construction trades, hospitality, automotive customer service or any of the industries, we’re ensuring that our graduates are not just trained to be experts in their trade but also equip them to be good employees. You can be the best carpenter in the world but if you’re unreliable, or unprofessional, nobody’s going to want to do business with you.” 

Another core value of FTA is affordability. 

“We’ve started a nonprofit arm, the Florida Trade Academy Scholarship Foundation, which seeks tax-deductible donations from corporations to provide scholarships for students who might not be able to attend,” Pello says. 

Although FTA is affordable, at $4,000 a semester, Pello is determined to offset costs as much as possible. He also researched other potential roadblocks to success for their student demographic and part of FTA’s business plan addresses those issues. Because of a potential lack of transportation, online course options were added. Even a lack of stable Wi-Fi or a device is taken care of.

“For every student that enrolls, we provide them with a tablet and the opportunity to come into the FTA offices to use our Wi-Fi,” he says. “We really strive to understand our end-users to set them up for success.” 

Training semesters start in the fall and spring terms, and with two successful semesters nearly complete, FTA has started actively recruiting for the fall of 2023, welcoming students from all walks of life. 

“What’s really fascinating,” Pello says, “is the diversity among our students. We have an [emergency room] doctor who is taking classes with his stepson to change careers, because they want to launch their own heating and air conditioning company. Or a 22-year-old high school graduate who finally wants to start focusing on a career.” 

FTA also partners with the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office to train nonviolent offenders nearing parole, to give inmates the opportunity to prepare for a viable career, once released. 

With all the diversity in the student body, Pello points to the one common denominator: “They all want to be trained, and equipped, for success and placed in a good paying career. We’re going to make a huge difference in the landscape for workforce development in the Bay area.”♦

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