The business community in Central Florida is so closely interwoven with the area colleges that it is sometimes difficult to distinguish the two. In August, Valencia opened a satellite campus in Lake Nona Medical City, a planned cluster of hospitals and medical-research institutions. Once a cow pasture, the hub also houses a campus for the University of Central Florida’s medical school, a Veterans Administration facility, and a cutting-edge children’s hospital.
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.