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The Catalyst’s Agile Education series: What we learned

Megan Holmes

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The Academy at Suncoast Developer's Guild faculty.

Business is in a state of constant flux. With the introduction of modern technologies and the move toward automation, the needs of employers are changing rapidly and the demands of educating for the careers of the future have never been higher. Meeting those demands requires innovative teaching methodologies and non-traditional avenues to pursue learning. Agility is the key to the new economy.

In our series Agile Education, we set out to explore the myriad ways that St. Pete schools are keeping up with the speed of the new economy. Along the way, we made some surprising discoveries and uncovered a few major themes:

Education-focused innovation is not just coming from schools and universities. St. Pete-based nonprofits,

Ex-Labs Class with Pat Gehant, pictured on the right. All photos provided by Kate Tiedemann College of Business.

private companies and many other institutions throughout our great city are becoming more nimble and responding faster to the needs of area businesses and our local economy. Where traditional education systems are lacking, technical and trade schools are picking up the slack. Universities are working internally and with outside partners to innovate curriculum. Private companies are creating technologies to spur non-traditional learning, and nonprofits are working with civic institutions to build acumen that’s been missing from our community.

There are two main schools of thought on the skills of the future. All of our stories in our Agile Education series focused on closing technical skills gaps, but they diverged at one major point – “soft skills” like leadership, communication and problem-solving, versus hard skills like technical knowledge in engineering, coding or pharmaceutical sciences.

Pinellas Technical College is heavily focused on the “hard skills” side, producing students that will be employed directly after graduation both in STEM-related careers and in-demand trades like Welding, HVAC, Electricity and Automotive Service Technology. Their graduates boast a 93 percent employment rate.

Academy at Suncoast Developers Guild follows a similar logic – there are tech job openings in Tampa Bay that need to be filled now – and they need developers equipped with code education to fill them. “We teach them how to code. We are a trade school,” said Toni Warren. “We are teaching them the craft of programming, so when they enter the workforce, Week One – if not Day One – they’re implementing code.”

Photo courtesy of City of St. Pete Flickr

According to Pat Gehant, co-founder of USFSP’s Ex-Labs, hiring good people that fit the company culture, are willing to learn and are skilled at networking can actually be more important than possessing hard skills – that’s why they open up Ex-Labs to students of every major. According to a 2012 Tampa Bay Tech study, many tech companies are willing to train employees – to teach them coding and other hard skills – if they are the right cultural fit, and if the company believes that they would be successful.

Private local companies both small and large are changing education for the better. Local giant Tech Data helped co-found USFSP’s Ex-Labs program along with Pat Gehant, and pioneer its curriculum. In the last seven sessions of the program, Tech Data has hired 30 graduates of the Ex-Labs program – and they’ve wanted to hire even more. When businesses get involved in the curriculum of the universities in their talent pool, they can feel more connected and more confident that they’re hiring the right people.

Presence, local start-up founded by St. Pete native Reuben Pressman is innovating higher education as part of their core mission. As a higher education data and software company, they believe that participation and inclusion is essential to the success of student. With their new Co-Curricular Opportunities Platform, Presence is offering innovative ways to gain experience and measure learning outside of the classroom – in activities like study abroad, service learning, volunteering and much more – for students to develop the soft skills that employers are looking for.

Pinellas Technical College Welding program.

Partnerships are happening everywhere. Filling in the gaps in Tampa Bay’s talent pool takes collaboration. These partnerships bring businesses and educational institutions together, and get them talking about what skills are needed. Not-for-profits like the St. Petersburg Arts Alliance are partnering with civic programs like the St. Pete Greenhouse to fill gaps in arts business education. Businesses like Tech Data are partnering with universities to bridge the skills gap and bring “non-traditional” tech talent to light. And through their Workforce Innovation Center, Pinellas Technical College is partnering with area businesses of all kinds to create programs that meet their talent and trade needs and in turn place their students in jobs after graduation.

Technical school is not what it once was. “[Pinellas Technical College is] not your grandfather’s technical school any more, turning out aspiring beauticians and auto mechanics” says Catalyst contributor Bill DeYoung. “Between its campuses in St. Petersburg and Clearwater, PTC offers intensive courses – most take a year or less – in Computer Systems and Information Technology, Network Support Services, Coding, Pharmacy Tech, Web Development, Medical Coding, Record Transcribing and Administration, Surgical Technology and other crucial STEM-related careers.” More innovative curricula are bringing in higher caliber students, too. Twenty-eight percent of students at PTC enroll with higher education degrees, sometimes even graduate degrees, to expand their knowledge. 

And technical schools are increasingly coming in different boxes. Non-traditional programs like the Academy at Suncoast Developers Guild consider themselves trade schools too – teaching the “craft” of coding to help students get jobs in tech.

A high tide that lifts all boats.

We hear it all the time that St. Petersburg is a special place – places where collaboration happens and the good of the community comes first. Through the seven chapters of the series, we began to see just how true that is. St. Pete is not willing to merely spectate as the national refrain lamenting the skills gap and the lack of STEM education repeats.

When it comes to the skills gap, it’s easy to point fingers. The common culprits – rapidly changing technology and automation, employers with unrealistic demands, or educators failing to prepare students for the “real world.” Not so in St. Pete. Instead, our businesses and institutions dig in, take responsibility, collaborate and create the tools that lift the job market to where our talent and our employers need it to be. We create programs to train and retrain workers. We create the high tide that lifts all boats.

The entire Agile Education series can be viewed here.

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    Pat Gehant

    July 12, 2018at3:13 pm

    Since many of the future jobs are not yet defined how does a company plan to find the talent to fill them? Partnerships that are Agile and innovate at the pace of technological change is the only way to to stay competitive. This applies to the company, the current workforce and the students preparing to enter the workforce.

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