Area companies growing -- and training new workers -- through grant program


Altavian employees, including shop tech Chris Jernigan, polishing molds to be used for UAV's, work in the shop building unmanned aerial vehicles, Thursday in Gainesville.

Erica Brough/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Saturday, October 5, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, October 4, 2013 at 7:15 p.m.

Working as a bouncer at a campus-area bar proved to be an entry into drone manufacturing for two employees of Altavian who were hired through a federal grant that pays part of their salary for on-the-job training.

Former auto mechanic Chris Jernigan, 27, was working in security at 101 Cantina when a former bouncer introduced him to Altavian's chief of engineering, Thomas Reed.

“He asked me if I wanted to do something different with my life and make a little bit more money. I said 'Absolutely. Why not?' So here I am,” Jernigan said on Thursday afternoon while crafting parts on a workbench in Altavian's northeast Gainesville facility.

Altavian hired Jernigan in July through the HBOTT program, which stands for Healthcare Biomanufacturing Occupational and Technology Training.

The program reimburses companies 50-90 percent of an employee's wages for as much as six months to train unemployed or underemployed people in technical fields.

“It's giving us a chance to actually come in and do something that we wouldn't really have the opportunity to do without more schooling,” Jernigan said.

FloridaWorks, the regional workforce board for Alachua and Bradford counties, received the $5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor last year. The grant is funded by fees from employers that hire foreign workers through the H-1B visa program for jobs in specialty occupations and is designed to train U.S. citizens for similar jobs.

For the local program, the jobs can be in health care, bioscience, advanced manufacturing or information technology.

FloridaWorks' goal is to put 264 people to work over the five-year life of the grant. So far, 121 people have been hired, with 46 completing their training program at a cost of about $800,000.

Companies apply for a specific number of jobs and create training plans, with progress reported to FloridaWorks monthly.

Companies with workers now in the program are Altavian, Grooveshark, LifeSouth Community Blood Centers, Mindtree, NeuroNet Learning, Prioria Robotics, SharpSpring and Totuit.

“Our local workforce board is very innovative in finding grant money that can be used to keep these innovative companies in Gainesville,” said Don Davis, community president of Capital City Bank, who was chairman of FloridaWorks' Business Competitive Committee when it approved most of the applications.

FloridaWorks now is accepting a third round of applications after some of the original applicants dropped out of the program and freed up funding.

Founders Pad, which helps new companies get started, originally planned to hire Web developers to help its client companies but dropped out because of the paperwork required for a two-person company and because of the hiring and training deadlines, said Paulo Da Silva.

Two companies — Altavian and NeuroNet Learning — came back for a second round of funding after filling their initial slots and continuing to grow.

“In the spirit of the grant and the funding, it's exactly what the money is intending to do — it's helping the companies grow and it's creating jobs,” said Kim Tesch-Vaught, FloridaWorks' executive director.

Altavian started in 2011 with three founders making unmanned aircraft systems for the Army Corps of Engineers to survey civil works projects. It has grown to 23 employees as a result of a defense contract and demand from colleges and surveyors.

The company filled its first round of 12 HBOTT positions and was approved for another 13 that it will start hiring next month. Eight of the original 12 have completed training and remain on the payroll.

Reed said the program helps Altavian address the shortage of people with manufacturing skills.

“The HBOTT program allows us to take somebody like Chris who has the aptitude and to also be able to train him, and at the end of the program he can have the manufacturing job here and have a huge future in manufacturing.”

NeuroNet Learning hired four people in the first round of funding and received approval for another eight as more schools bought its education software.

With 12 total employees, the company is in the process of hiring its eighth through the HBOTT program, said Jonathan Rowe, managing director.

Without the program, he said, “We'd probably be moving a little slower and … we may have been forced to rely more heavily on working with contractors.”

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