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The Role of Universities in Supporting Regional Economies: Earn Up in Northeast Florida

The EvoLLLution | The Role of Universities in Supporting Regional Economies: Earn Up in Northeast Florida
The Earn Up initiative is a multi-stakeholder project aimed at strengthening the labor market skills of working-age adults in the Northeast Florida region.

Colleges and universities have always been important to the regional economy here in Northeast Florida—both as sizable businesses anchored in the community and as institutions advancing the educational needs of residents. In the past decade, though, our role in economic development has grown significantly as workforce availability has become the driver in relocation and expansion decisions by employers.

We’ve responded to this expanded role by launching the Earn Up initiative—the product of significant collaboration between postsecondary institutions, employers and the regional government—aimed at growing the skilled workforce in our region.

How Higher Education Institutions Work with Employers

There used to be a time when tax incentives or site location would drive company decisions, but now employers want to know one thing: will you have the talent I need to be successful in this market? When these executives come to town to evaluate Northeast Florida as a prospective market, they want to meet with me, with our college deans and with our state college leaders. Some even drill down into high schools. They need to see firsthand how we are producing and will produce the employees they need; we have to demonstrate our responsiveness.

Over the last decade, we’ve also seen a strengthening of relationships between universities and our core target industries, which makes sense because they are mutually beneficial. For instance, employers seek out universities to assist with research and development, utilizing young minds to solve problems, all under the direction of seasoned professors. Internships are another great example of how universities work with employers in a win-win situation. Years ago, internships were seen as an added bonus on a student’s resume. Now we see them in every field of study, giving students the hands-on experience they need to hit the ground running after graduation and giving employers a way to test out a potential employee in advance of bringing them on full time.

The Role of Government Leaders in Facilitating Collaboration

We are fortunate, in Northeast Florida, to have some natural alignments that make collaboration very easy, like a consolidated city and county government in Jacksonville and state leadership that is focused on workforce development. Add to that a high degree of mutual respect among our region’s higher education leaders and strong relationships among our institutions and employers, and working towards the same goal becomes a natural outcome.

Jacksonville’s mayor, Alvin Brown, has made job growth the top priority of his administration, and his economic development leaders know that they can sell our partnership with the business community as a key asset for the region. We get great workforce gap and overage analysis data from our local workforce board, CareerSource, and also from our business intelligence experts at JAXUSA Partnership. This information, combined with ongoing dialogue with our industry leaders, helps us determine as higher education leaders which programs to grow or alter to meet demand.

Here in Northeast Florida, universities are focused on providing degree programs in areas relevant to the region. We watch those trends closely to ensure we are providing graduates in high-demand areas.

The Earn Up Initiative: Developing a Larger Skilled Workforce

Employers are looking for an educated and skilled workforce and before they come visit a region, they will take a look at a community’s workforce statistics. Right now, we are at a 36-percent college attainment rate for working adults. To compete with other regions in the nation, we need to raise that to meet employer demand, which is projected to be upwards of 60 percent by 2025. To even come close to meeting this projection, it can’t be just one college or one non-profit making a change—it has to be a major collaboration among all the various stakeholders.

This imperative led to the creation of Earn Up late last year.

Most of our working adults in the region don’t have an industry certification or an associate or bachelor’s degree. We know that many of them enrolled at a college or university at some point, but then stopped attending. The reasons for that can be financial or academic, but once they drop out, getting them back can be difficult and requires trying new approaches.

The Earn Up initiative is taking a look at a few key areas where barriers to re-enrollment and completion can be addressed. First, accessibility and flexibility for returning students needs to become a priority. More online course offerings coupled with support coaches is proving to be effective through a pilot program called Complete Florida, which we have begun promoting to the community.

Second, we need to get employers on board with helping employees continue their learning and complete their degrees. After the downturn in the economy, a lot of tuition reimbursement programs were cut—those need to come back. Also, we need to encourage employers to consider scheduling flexible, onsite programs to help workers with families meet the needs of their job and their children while earning a credential or degree. With the JAX Chamber leading the messaging on this, we hope to shine a light on examples of good workplace practices that raise workers’ attainment rates while also improving the company’s bottom line.

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