Carlie Flagler, 21, is the kind of homegrown talent city officials are hoping to entice to stay in Lakeland.

What would make Lakeland the kind of city young people want to stay in?

Carlie Flagler, 21, grew up in Lakeland. She graduated from Lakeland Senior High School in 2019 and the University of South Florida in December 2022, and is now a full-time employee of Citrus Connection.

She could have taken a job anywhere after college, but she chose to stay at the local public transportation agency where she started as an intern in 2021.

“The internship at Citrus Connections was just the right door opening at the right time,” Flagler said. “The program was originally supposed to be only for the summer. But I really enjoyed the work I did there, so I requested an extension of the internship. They granted it, and then in January 2022 I was hired as the assistant planner, so it took about six months to be hired on. A week after my college graduation in December 2022, they promoted me to senior planner!”

Flagler earns $67,000 annually.

She said she’s grateful to Citrus Connection Executive Director Tom Phillips for the trust he placed in her and the opportunity he gave to her.

Flagler is exactly the kind of young person city commissioners are hoping to keep in Lakeland — homegrown talent who often leave Lakeland for bright lights and big cities when they graduate from high school or college.

Commissioners are continuing to build a dam to stop of the flood of those leaving, with the latest effort coming in the form of a City Youth Council.

A new Youth Council

City Commissioners on Monday unanimously approved the formation of a 15-member Youth Council to “inject fresh ideas and the perspectives of youth in the community into local decision-making.”

City staff are drafting an application that will be sent to public and private high schools in August. No essays will be required, but students will be asked to answer a few questions including why they want to join.

City commissioners can nominate two people each, preferably one senior and one underclassman, with applications due by August 25. Members will be named in September. 

Commissioner Stephanie Madden is shepherding the program through the formation process, picking up where former Commissioner Phillip Walker left off when he term-limited out of office. Walker was president of the Florida League of Cities and saw the program working in other areas.

Madden has been a champion of an innovation district, to try to bring technology companies to Lakeland, along with the high-paying jobs that those industries offer.

City Commissioner Stephanie Madden

“We don’t know exactly what’s going to develop here,” Madden said. “I’m hopeful that, right now, we’re on the precipice to say we do have our state’s Polytechnic School. And so we really can — it is not pie in the sky to think that we could get some kind of industry clusters here to parallel with college degrees.”

Madden said she doesn’t want to see Lakeland turn into a community that offers only low-skills, low-wage work in warehouses —  a business that is currently booming.

“That’s not my dream for my future,” she said. “That’s why I advocate so much for the innovation district. But you know, you can’t promise that those things will happen unless you really have some leadership.”

Commissioner Chad McLeod said he applauded a program that can connect Lakeland’s youth with City Hall.

I know when I go and speak … I always ask ‘What would you change in the city of Lakeland? What would you do?’ and it’s interesting to hear ideas even from young students,” McLeod said. “So I think with high school students … a lot of them are, they’re bright and they have great ideas. And so this is something that I’m excited to see what happens.”

To serve on the council, students must be a city resident actively enrolled in a public or private high school. They will be appointed for one to two years and expected to attend meetings on the second Thursday of each month from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. in the City Commission chamber, where they will learn about parliamentary procedure and elect a chair and a vice chair.

At the end of the school year, the group will give a presentation on what they’ve learned. Field trips will be involved, including to the Florida League of Cities annual conference, which will take place in Orlando this year.

Developing young talent

Mayor Bill Mutz pointed to multiple programs that are offered in Lakeland for young people, including:

Florida Polytechnic University. | Kimberly C. Moore, LkldNow

“It is the purpose of the academies, Catapult, Leads, Florida Poly and many other efforts to try and maintain the educational rigor required, as well as coordinating with employers for future job opportunities that utilize our students growing brain trust,” Mutz told LkldNow. “And, as we do so, we have to be focused on housing, as well. It is also why vibe matters and making certain that we are creating cool spaces that make our younger graduates interested in staying in Lakeland part of the fabric of our future.”

Downtown Lakeland has undergone a renaissance in the last decade, with more restaurants and bars opening and plans for a complete overhaul of Munn Park that will include games, a permanent performance stage and food truck stations.

In the last year, the LEDC restarted its Summer Leadership Program, which is designed as a retention tool for area employers and targets interns and new hires, ages 18-30. The participants gain leadership knowledge from national speakers, grow their network, take tours of Lakeland amenities and industries, and learn about the power of planting your roots and dedicating yourself to a community long-term. Last summer, it had 81 participants from 33 companies.

Flagler just completed this year’s Summer Leadership Program.

“I give them a lot of credit for making me want to stay in Lakeland,” Flagler said. “My boyfriend and I were preparing to leave the state before the end of the year, but SLP really changed our mind.” 

In a survey published in its annual report, LEDC contacted nearly 700 graduates of the Summer Leadership Program to find out if they remained in the Lakeland market — a goal of the program — and their feelings on Lakeland. Out of those who responded:

  • 71% are with the same company
  • 60% live in Lakeland
  • And 24% are not in Lakeland, moved to Tampa/Orlando

They listed the top reason to leave as a better job opportunity and the number one reason to stay as job opportunity. They said Lakeland’s best attribute is the community feeling here. Its worst trait: traffic.

The city’s human resources department said that out of 531 job offers they have made so far this year, 80 declined the offer — or 15%.  That’s five more than in all of 2022, with 9.5% of 782 offers declined. In addition, out of 8,300 applications received this year, a little more than half were qualified.

Lakeland Chamber of Commerce President Amy Wiggins said talent retention has long been a priority for the Chamber — primarily through the promotion of internships, which either have to be paid or the student has to be given course credit.

“We were an original partner in the Neighborhood Association Coalition’s SummerWerx program and have championed training for businesses learning how to build internships,” Wiggins said. “There have been more than a dozen programs through the years! Our director of business resources, Takiyah Dixon, helps connect local schools with internship programs to the business community. Through the PCPS academies, high school students now participate as interns as well.”

Wiggins said she served as a steward for the Youth in Government program when she worked at the YMCA.

“My team knows how important our connection to youth programs is to me,” she said. “In addition to relaunching an education committee, we’re also building a model for a collegiate leadership program. We’re also a Florida Ready to Work partner, promoting soft skills that help new graduates transition successfully to a professional setting.”

According to, soft skills can include empathy, emotional control, communication skills, self-awareness, and emotional intelligence, which encompasses everything from the ability to gauge and manage your own emotions to building long-lasting professional relationships, and how well employees interact with one another, as well as how they manage stress and conflict.

Commissioner Sara Roberts McCarley runs a program through the Randy Roberts Foundation, named after her late husband, which fosters public service through the Congressional Classroom program. Students visit the Capitol in Washington, D.C. and Tallahassee. McCarley said Polk County also needs more than college graduates. She pointed out that carpenters, roofers, plumbers, mechanics and electricians are noble professions that contribute to our community.

“I think, for a while, our generation sort of shoved those aside and said everybody needs an undergrad degree,” McCarley said. “And so now, we’re retrofitting back to you know, you can work with your hands and be really good at it and make a really good living and have a sustainable career.”

Lakeland Police Lt. Joe Parker and some of his fellow officers joined together with multiple tradesmen last month to teach a summer Trades Academy – teaching students the basics of building a small structure.

McCarley said Polk County Public Schools Superintendent Frederick Heid is working with area companies to ensure that students are taught the skills that are needed, including by some of the employees of those corporations.

“One of the things that Mr. Heid is talking about is going and working corporately with a group like a Saddle Creek or a logistics center, saying tell me how you want us, how you want them trained. Can you come and teach in some of our technical schools so that those skills match what our big corporations need?” McCarley said. “No one’s probably ever really asked that for them to come teach … matching is like the crucible and the delta, right. It’s figuring out how to pathway that together. We’re showing that there are these pathways, that you’re just opening up a little window and our young people’s head and we’re or trying to catch them in middle and high school.”

Students interested in the Youth Council Program can reach out to any of the city commissioners or their high school principal for an application. City officials said application should be available later this week.

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Kimberly C. Moore, who grew up in Lakeland, has been a print, broadcast and multimedia journalist for more than 30 years. Before coming to LkldNow in the spring of 2022, she was a reporter for four years with The Ledger, first covering Lakeland City Hall and then Polk County schools. She is the author of “Star Crossed: The Story of Astronaut Lisa Nowak," published by University Press of Florida. Reach her at or 863-272-9250.

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