How Central Florida colleges are partnering with businesses to meet workforce needs

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Published online in the Orlando Business Journal on April 26, 2022

Filling industry needs and partnering with local companies on training programs are top of mind for Orlando colleges and universities.

Several local education providers have launched or bolstered programs to create trained workers in fields that have grown in recent years. Providing opportunities for career advancement and training can be a key part of employer recruitment and retention efforts — and is even more critical now, when companies are struggling to retain their workforces.

Colleges and universities can partner with employers or organizations to make sure they are churning out skilled workers, so they can have an immediate impact once they join an employer. For example, Orange Technical College — part of Orange County Public Schools — has used the Orlando Economic Partnership's skills-based hiring process to fill IT worker gaps not just for businesses, but for the district itself.

Some IT professionals left the district due to competitive pay in the private sector, posing a challenge for the district to fill those highly skilled positions, said Melanie Stefanowicz, Orange County Public Schools associate superintendent for career and technical education. So, the district created a skills-based training for CompTIA, A+ and Net+, she said.

The certification allows the district to train or up-skill current employees so they qualify for harder-to-fill positions, Stefanowicz, said. It also allows students who have asked about career opportunities an opportunity to train to backfill positions when the district promotes from within or they can join another employer, she said. "We're looking at how we can augment our own internal talent pipeline and support the community at the same time."

Several Central Florida colleges also are looking at how to provide stackable credentials so employees can have an easier time working toward higher-level certifications.

Take Valencia College and Seminole State College of Florida, which long have provided transfers through UCF DirectConnect. Many students seek a short-term skills training credential, said Joe Battista, vice president of global, professional and continuing education for Valencia College. "It's not that they don't want to pursue a two- or four-year degree, but I think they're looking for a significant way to build a skill into a career, and then hopefully continue their education after they are employed in new positions."

A credential that takes four months to a year to secure can give someone access to a good job in the short term while helping them move closer to completing an associate's degree, Molly Kostenbauder, associate vice president of Seminole State's school of business, health and public safety.

Meanwhile, University of Central Florida Provost Michael Johnson has seen more companies sponsor educational programs. For instance, UCF teamed with Inc.’s Career Choice program in March, which allows the e-commerce giant to pay employees' tuition at the school. Hourly, full- or part-time employees at Amazon (Nasdaq: AMZN) who have worked there for at least 90 days qualify for the program, Johnson said. "We see it as the future and we're certainly trying to be part of that to the extent that it develops."

Also launching this summer is the UCF Downtown Scholars Initiative, an effort to sponsor education for students in historically underserved communities, via a $3.25 million partnership with the Helios Education Foundation.

The program will start at Orlando's Jones High School and later expand to Evans and Oak Ridge high schools in years three and four, providing one-on-one consultations with rising seniors to improve the retention of first-year students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.