The workforce problem and what Tampa Bay area educational institutions are doing about it

For the last decade, the only constant in the workforce has been change. Across various industries, transformation spins, creating new jobs or dramatically altering others, from the rapid advances in technology to the innovative industries springing up from new services and consumer needs, not to mention the mass pivot to remote settings as we rethink the spaces and places of modern work.

Add the recent explosion of Tampa Bay as a national market and the buzz demands—what is the Bay area doing to prepare the next generation of the workforce? The answer, it turns out, is plenty. 

From targeting school-aged children, early, with career awareness to specific short-term certifications from our Bay area colleges; from the University of South Florida’s new Bellini Center for Talent Development to the nonprofit group CEOs in Schools that gives the youth population a chance to interact with Suncoast leaders, Tampa Bay area nonprofit organizations, educational institutions and businesses are working together to make sure the younger generation is prepared  for meaningful career paths to sustain themselves and our communities. 

One key strategy is to start early. Junior Achievement of Tampa has been a local force, in education, since 1965 with programs across Bay area public schools. In fifth grade, nearly 20,000 students participate, each year, in JA’s BizTown, experiencing the world of work in a fun, interactive, simulation. During their eighth-grade year, JA’s popular Finance Park introduces students to various careers through an immersive, experiential learning experience. 

And, a newly launched program in Bay area high schools, the 3DE program, hones in on the skills, and competencies, needed in the 21st century workplace, as Christina Roberts, JA’s 3DE executive director explains. “Our vision is to systematically reengineer public high school education to help students find their career pathways and engage with local businesses.”

3DE was first piloted by JA, in Georgia, in 2015, and it has become a nationwide model for success. JA Tampa launched 3DE, in 2020, across four high schools, Chamberlain, Hillsborough, Dunedin and St. Petersburg high schools and will start new programs this fall at Gibbs High School, in Pinellas County, and Tenoroc High, in Polk. In ninth and 10th grades, students participate in six different case studies, each year, led by various local businesses from Truist Financial to Home Depot. 

For the upcoming school year, the first cohort of Bay area 11th graders will work collaboratively to create their own, entrepreneurial adventure, culminating in a “market day” to showcase their original products or services, guided again by local businesses. Finally, 12th graders in the program will collaborate, in small groups of eight to 10, on a consultancy project with a sponsoring business. 

Integrated throughout the students’ mainstream curriculum, every year of the 3DE program focuses on specific benchmarks to nurture vital, 21st century skills.

“Each year we develop basic core competencies, so students have the skills that are needed to be successful across any career path: creativity and innovation, cultural agility, critical thinking, effective collaboration, engaging communication and self-direction,” Roberts says. 

Another early intervention is the popular CEOs in Schools, started by Vistra Communications founder and CEO Brian Butler, in 2019, and now in partnership with Hillsborough County schools through the Hillsborough Education Foundation. 

“CEOs in Schools partners local business leaders with principals, and their staffs, in Hillsborough County elementary schools. This partnership exposes business leaders to challenges faced in our public education system at the elementary school level while providing principals the opportunity to work directly with business leaders to find creative ways to solve challenges and enhance their programs,” Butler says. 

With the exciting “One Day of Change” program, more than 150 Bay area CEOs will spend the entire day, on Nov. 4, at a local elementary school, forging important connections with students and faculty. 

Finally, Hillsborough Community College offers a robust dual enrollment program where high school students earn college credit on courses within their school day, getting a head start on a degree but most importantly, investigating their personal areas of career interest by taking college-level classes. With more than 7,000 students taking advantage of dual enrollment courses—and all materials and fees completely free— SPC and HCC provides area high schoolers with valuable opportunities to begin their path early.  

All three of the Tampa Bay area public higher education institutions prioritize keeping up to date with evolving workforce needs, with dedicated spaces, and faculty, to tackle workforce readiness. 

They each maintain strong ties to local businesses and use communication, and collaboration, to cultivate talent pipelines. As St. Petersburg College’s dean of workforce development, Belinthia Berry, explains, “Workforce development has been on the map for over 10 years now and it all starts with our business relationships. It’s a new unit that I oversee where we’re going out, meeting with businesses and industry to collaborate together on their hiring needs. Therefore, we can meet the students where they are, and meet businesses where they are and become the bridge, connecting them together.” 

From developing specific short-term certification programs to helping nontraditional students train in flexible evening or weekend courses, SPC points to its many successful partnerships including Bank of America and Duke Energy. 

“There are three main areas we focus on with our partnerships: the people, productivity and their profitability. And we’re always looking for more,” Berry says. “There are Florida State grants that will cover the cost of new hires, or paid training, to upskill. We will walk you through the steps. It’s a win-win for everyone.”

Across Tampa Bay, HCC is also constantly scanning the employment environment, according to Richard Senker, vice president of academic programs. 

“We’re always looking at our community employment needs and, in turn, we want to create and revise our programs based on the needs that we’re seeing in the community,” he says. 

With career centers at all five campuses, throughout the Bay area, HCC works closely with its business partners and advisory boards to create relevant curriculum for today’s workforce. Its Institute for Corporate and Continuing Education also strengthens the talent pipelines with dozens of local partners. ICCE serves both businesses and students—offering consultations and direct access to talent resources to partners and providing career resources, networking, interviewing skills and financial assistance to students. 

Beyond the specialist training demanded for specific industries, across all institutions there’s an emerging emphasis on the soft skills needed by graduates to be successful in the ever-changing workforce and our institutions, together, all offer courses or programs addressing these social-emotional skills. 

USF recently launched an innovative program, within the Muma College of Business, with 70 students in the inaugural cohort and hundreds more to start this fall, all housed in a custom-designed hub of creativity. 

“The Bellini Center facilitates a comprehensive development curriculum, the Bellini badging program, that starts in the second semester of freshman year,” says Cyndy Sanberg, director of the Bellini Center for Talent Development. “By starting earlier than traditional internships, our new system will ensure students develop the soft skills so often missing from today’s graduates, skills like communication, networking, critical thinking and creativity.” 

There are four badges tied to each year of enrollment: foundational, power skills, networking and internships, for juniors, and mastery for the senior year. Students are also required to complete a floating badge any time, throughout their four years focusing on diversity, equity, inclusion and wellness.

As Sanberg explains, “Students entering the workplace need to understand, and be able to deal with, DEI issues. That way they can make more educated decisions and are more respectable employees. But they also must be attuned to their own well-being. This is the first time that I’ve seen an educational program where social and community wellness is combined with physical and nutritional wellness, and it absolutely should be. It’s important to us to make students better people so they’re better employees.” 

SPC and HCC also incorporate the whole person in their talent training and Bay area businesses, too, prioritize the importance of well-being in their rising talent. 

As Senker notes, “We really have to do a better job, as a country, and therefore as educational institutions, to address the mental health of our communities and our students.”

Even industries suffering acute talent shortages, on a national level, have risen to the Bay area challenge of finding a way to make better people, and better workers, in widening our talent pools. 

The USF College of Education recently pivoted from the brink of phasing out their undergraduate program to redoubling their efforts to train and place the nation’s best teachers. With the undergraduate program back up, and running strong, USF’s College of Education, once again, is ranked in the top 100 schools, nationally. New programs across the college will bolster our future teaching populations. 

One new initiative is USF’s recent acceptance into the Mathematics Engineering Science Achievement program. Alongside John Hopkins University and the University of Rhode Island, USF is one of only three universities, east of the Mississippi, to offer this program. 

As Antony Rolle, the dean of the college of education, explains, “The MESA program is a university and corporate relationship, not only involving the districts and the college but also the community businesses, in terms of providing opportunities for students of color, women and low-income students to participate in a pipeline program that is designed to encourage students to focus on STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] -related educational opportunities. And as part of that effort, of course, the college hopes to siphon some of those students participating in STEM fields to settle into education.” 

It’s a savvy, holistic approach to education and the wider workforce—we need strong teachers to plant the initial seed of STEM learning in schools or industries will suffer in the future.

Bay area institutions are nurturing talent and businesses and nonprofits across Tampa Bay are meeting them, halfway, to strengthen the process. 

As SPC’s Berry concludes: “We hit the ground running and we’ve never stopped. We’re always chasing the wave of the future, always talking to businesses, and building out content. I’m asking employers, what are the jobs you see for the future? And how can we help build those training programs now?  That’s the only way we can upskill to keep up across industries, because everything constantly changes.”

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