Valencia was involved in the Lake Nona planning from the beginning. The goal was to create a friendly environment for science-related companies and to build on Orlando’s lucrative tourism industry. City officials hope that the area will become a mecca for medical conferences. An international airport is nearby. The presence of SeaWorld, Universal Studios, and Disney World ensures plenty of hotel space.
Valencia tries to craft its degrees to what employers need. The college doubled its nursing program to respond to a shortage at Florida Hospital, which ponied up $1 million for the expansion. The hospital donated equipment, and the school made sure that the students were trained on it.
Shugart recalled the conversation that hatched the deal. Around a boardroom table of hospital and college executives, Florida Hospital President Lars Houmann said he expected to spend $24 million a year to recruit and hire 1,000 nurses, ad infinitum.
“I said, ‘Well, from what you’re telling me, I need to produce another 300 nurses a year to save you $12 million. Is that worth a million to you?’ It’s a business proposition,” Shugart said.
Cozy relationships between educators and employers can backfire if the market suddenly changes, of course. That’s what happened with Northrop Grumman, which asked Valencia in 2006 to develop a laser-photonics program that would cater to its needs. At the time, the defense contractor was scrambling for workers to build the laser-guided missile components and scanning equipment that the military was screaming for.
Massive defense-spending cuts suddenly dried up that demand last year. Northrop Grumman laid off 200 employees, some of them graduates of Valencia’s program. The layoffs caused enough of a disturbance that the White House shied away from including Valencia’s laser-photonics program in one of President Obama’s speeches promoting college/employer relationships.
More broadly, critics say that aligning academic programs so closely with employers’ needs does a disservice to students who need a broader education. They may be thinking of people like Vik Cesalien, who interned at Northrop Grumman as part of a high school program dedicated to laser photonics. Cesalien is going for his bachelor’s degree in lasers and electronics, and he wants to work at Northrop Grumman. The only trouble is, the giant contractor isn’t hiring.
A narrow focus on one company misses the point. A host of other Orlando employers were involved in crafting Valencia’s laser-photonics program, but they didn’t get as much publicity because they didn’t write the biggest checks and they didn’t have as dire a need for workers. But the program is still going strong with contributions from a variety of employers, including Northrop Grumman.
“They’re great. They’re still on the advisory committee. They still started it. When their contracts come back, they’ll hire people,” Shugart said. “If the people we trained got laid off, that’s still OK with me, because skills are a durable, transferable, fungible asset.”
A certificate in laser photonics may not get someone a job at Northrop Grumman, but it can allow him to design theme parks instead of just operating the rides. That’s what happened to Jimmy Hurst, a technician at Universal Studios who spent the last year putting together graphic displays for the new Harry Potter theme park. He was already working at Universal when he decided to get an associate’s degree from Valencia. Without it, he would have been stuck in a dead-end job. He tells his younger colleagues that a professional degree is their ticket to advancement. “They’ll hire you as a technician, but that’s as far as you’re going to go” without it, he said.
This is the story that Valencia is trying to tell in a hundred different ways: College is for everyone. College doesn’t have to be four years of book learning. Transfers are OK. Part-time school is fine. Two-year degrees aren’t terminal. Employers want degree holders who are from the area, and Valencia can offer them.
Shugart is lucky that he operates in an environment friendly to his off-the-wall ideas. (He once considered inserting $5 bills into required textbooks to encourage students to buy early.) Not every college has resources to freeze tuition, as Valencia did this year. Not every college has employees who would accept the accompanying wage freeze without complaint. Not every college is nestled in the heart of a booming health care and tourism region that is willing to support it.
Not every college can do what Valencia does. That’s kind of the point. And if middle-class employment is going to continue into the next generation, there should be more places like it.
Originally appeared in print as Orlando Magic.