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Florida’s High Tech Corridor is not immune to what some have suggested is a disconnect between education and career readiness, but the region’s three universities – the University of Central Florida (UCF), the University of South Florida (USF) and the University of Florida (UF) – are working to develop a stronger workforce for more than 21,000 technology companies throughout the region.   

Since 2012, UF has strengthened its degree programs through the curriculum of its Innovation Academy, a program emphasizing 21st-century skillsets: interdisciplinary collaboration, media literacy, global awareness, critical problem-solving and change-making leadership, among others.   

According to Innovation Academy’s academic coordinator, Amy Bucciarelli, these skills are desired by employers, but often lacking in college graduates. However, graduates from the program know better. Innovation Academy students earn a minor in innovation through the completion of six courses, with topics including “Creative Thinking,” “Entrepreneurship,” “Leadership” and “Ethics.”

With a minor in innovation, you’ve been practicing some of the skills that employers want to see since your very first course during your freshman year, said Bucciarelli. 

Among the program’s graduates is David Nassau, 16, who now serves as product marketing manager at Intel in the San Francisco Bay Area.   

Not only was the curriculum of [Innovation Academy] beneficial, the connections in the Gainesville entrepreneurial community became one of the most valuable assets to me as an ambitious student looking for opportunities,” explained Nassau. Today, I am a proud alumnus who walks around the office with an old [Innovation Academy] brochure on my desk to remind myself to continue on this exciting path. 

Across the Corridor region, electrical engineering students at USF experience the positive impacts of a more flexible academic schedule that aligns with their career goals. The Curriculum Innovation Committee, led by electrical engineering professor, Chris Ferekides, Ph.D., introduced a new curriculum in 2017 that encourages students to study classes in “sub-areas” of electrical engineeringIt challenges them to become more well-rounded and better prepared to enter a variety of industries post-graduation.  

“Because they have to customize their curriculum, students are fully engaged from day one and starting to think about their plans, and how to make career-related choices early on,” said Ferekides. “We are also including a ‘professional component’ in our new curriculum that includes content weaved throughout the middle two years to address important career skills, such as teamwork, communication, leadership and ethicsUnlike a traditional course that focuses only on technical content, this includes activities where students can engage in self-directed projects, community outreach, internshipsstudent organizations … and many activities we have yet to think about.” 

USF electrical engineering graduate, Mary Simpson, 16, started a job at LGS Innovations in Tampa just one week after graduation. 

I definitely contribute my quick hiring from the classes that I took that related to my career goal and the application of real-world problems in class,” said Simpson. USFs curriculum also incorporated technologies and software that companies are currently using. This gave me the capability to be quickly brought onto current projects.”   

Along with the flexibility to choose classes based on career interests, USF’s electrical engineering program will soon offer other initiatives geared toward complementing students’ technical proficiency.  Among them, a series of courses called “Professional Formation of Engineers” launching in 2018 will center on the soft skills sought after by employers. Through hands-on learning, the courses will provide students opportunities to become ‘certified’ in areas such as ethics, leadership and communications.

In Orlando, UCF has implemented career-oriented programs to better prepare next-generation engineers with essential soft skillsUCF’s Engineering Leadership and Innovation Institute (eli^2) was developed in 2009 to provide more opportunities for students in the College of Engineering and Computer Science to master skills not emphasized in their degree program, such as public speaking and thinking on a global scale.  

According to eli^2 Director Tim Kotnour, Ph.D., the mission is to help students discover their burning desire and confidence to deliver world-changing solutions.”   

eli^2 is open to students at all levels in their studies, from undergraduate college students to business executives.   

For the undergraduate engineering and computer science student, we focus on helping them become leaders. We focus on helping them be technically sound, creative, innovative, collaborative and accountable, as well as the owner of their academic career and the owner of a well-balanced life,” said Kotnour.   

Working professionals can look forward to building confidence and skills to lead teams that deliver innovative solutions. Executives can expect a forum to share lessons learned and best practices in leading an organization.  

For JC Perez, eli^2 was the bridge that connected his technical engineering education with leadership development, offering him direct access to high-profile mentors who could provide industry insight and career advice. It opened the door to networking and professional development opportunities, which catapulted him into a successful career as project manager for Belcan Engineering Group in Palm Beach Gardens – an engineering firm that provides solutions for various industries, from aerospace to cybersecurity.   

“eli^2 developed my skills as an engineer and as a leader, allowing me to obtain a shorter learning curve within my position and creating a foundation of skills – creation, innovation, collaboration and accountability – valuable to the company, Perez said. 

The rise in popularity of programs like eli^2 at UCF and other universities is having a positive effect not only for students, but also for employersDanielle Frank, human resources director for global security and aerospace leader, Lockheed Martin, has seen an influx of prime candidates in recent years. Her team focuses on hiring students who are not just technically proficient, but have the communication skills needed to support the research, development and operation of Lockheed Martin’s advanced technology systems.  

The quality of the entry-level technical workforce we’re seeing is impressive – high-caliber curriculum and students, many of which bring internship experience,” said Frank. “We are also seeing incredible eagerness to take on difficult challenges; the ability to collaborate and work as part of a team, including strong communication skills, is critical to that process.” 

While work continues to prepare workforce-ready graduates, Corridor universities are stepping up to the challenge.

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