Florida brain gain: FIU is ensuring that Sunshine State employers find the talent they need in new graduates


Brian Castillo is the kind of young professional Florida Gov. Rick Scott wants to see more of. With a BS in biomedical engineering in hand, the 2016 alumnus stepped immediately from the commencement stage into a job with the South Florida division of medical technologies firm Stryker. Today the 25-year-old robotics systems engineer (pictured above) is leading a team in the design, development and eventual market release of a robot for use in knee and hip replacement surgeries.

That perfect example of a graduate’s transition from school to employment gets at the heart of the two-term governor’s ongoing demand that Florida’s 12 public universities do more to meet the needs of Florida’s companies. In response to Scott’s steady drumbeat on the subject, the State University System’s governing board in 2014 began measuring the institutions against a list of key performance indicators, among them: turning out holders of bachelor’s degrees ready to enter the workforce.

At the same time the official economic development organization for Miami-Dade County, The Miami-Dade Beacon Council, has undertaken efforts to foster areas of potential growth within the region and ensure a corresponding talent pool.

“What we recognize is that education is the foundation of the strategic plan that will create economic sustainability for all of Miami-Dade County,” says Joseph E. Hovancak, vice president of the organization’s One Community One Goal initiative, which strives to create an environment for significant job creation in target industries. His office has brought together the presidents of local colleges and universities and the Miami-Dade County Public Schools superintendent under the umbrella of the Academic Leaders Council, of which FIU President Mark B. Rosenberg served as chair from 2012-2016. The group meets quarterly to discuss skills gaps, and its members interact directly with executives looking to either expand their operations or move to South Florida.

“Companies want to feel confident in the environment they’re in and that there is a prospect for long-term growth,” says Jaap Donath, the Beacon Council’s senior vice president for research and strategic planning. The willingness of higher education leaders to talk about workforce needs and engage executives “helps make the case that you don’t have to go outside the area to grow your company.”

FIU has embraced the challenge of getting graduates into meaningful work that moves the economy forward and relies on a variety of approaches to guarantee they can contribute what their employers need to stay competitive.

Sheila Lopez completed a liberal studies degree in the spring of 2017 and went straight into full-time employment as a program technician with the USDA Farm Service Agency in Florida City.

Responsive academic programming

Under the leadership of Provost and Executive Vice President Kenneth G. Furton, FIU makes a priority of ensuring that degree programs stay relevant. Only through constant review of courses and continuous content updating—work that deans along with department chairs and faculty make happen—can young people expect to graduate with the kind of skills and advanced knowledge employers look for.

The most recent example of that responsiveness: the university’s brand-new bachelor’s degree in “the Internet of Things.” Two years in the making, the first-in-the nation program reflects the rapidly changing world in which computing devices and digital machinery can transfer data over networks without requiring human action. (Think smart thermostats, medical “wearables” and driverless cars.) FIU quickly recognized a need to prime a generation of professionals ready to lead in the arena, and students in January of 2018 began taking the initial courses.

Faculty in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering were the first to see that no program in the country existed to turn out graduates with appropriate backgrounds at a time when IOT technology had begun rapidly taking off. Consequently, says Professor Kemal Akkaya, even companies with computer scientists or computer engineers on staff had to send them out for additional training in areas such as wireless communication and cybersecurity.

“That’s why we developed the degree, so we can fill that gap,” says Akkaya, who points out that the need for such employees exists across major sectors, among them energy, transportation, health, agriculture, aviation and hospitality.

Researchers as teachers

FIU is one of 81 public doctoral-granting universities in the nation that has achieved the top Carnegie classification of “Highest Research Activity.” That ranking acknowledges research productivity and a quality of output commensurate with that of some of the oldest and most renowned institutions of higher education in the country. It means that FIU successfully competes with the best schools in the country for grants from agencies such as the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of  Transportation.

Since 2015, FIU faculty have obtained more than 60 patents. The kind of heavy-duty research activity required to create new technology benefits not just students but the companies that hire them after graduation.

Aside from providing exciting, cutting- edge classroom instruction, professors involved in high-level research often invite students into the lab or on eld excursions. Once reserved exclusively for master’s and Ph.D. students, such opportunities are increasingly open to undergraduates — something that bodes well for tech and engineering industries that rely heavily on innovation.

Castillo, the robotics systems engineer, agrees that his hands-on campus lab experience made him workforce ready. Interested in prosthetics-related projects being run by multi-patent holder Ranu Jung, who is the Wallace H. Coulter Eminent Scholar, a fellow of the National Academy of Inventors and chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering, Castillo asked if he could participate in the work.

“She was more than willing to help me and allowed me into her lab,” Castillo recalls of what turned out to be a career-impacting move. “That early exposure helps me still with research and concept development. I also got exposure working on a team and presenting concepts and accepting feedback. All that was critical and really helped shape me as a young professional.”

Nykeema Radway ’17 took her BA in public relations to a job as marketing coordinator at Miami Children’s Health Foundation.

Industry-academy synergy

Regularly taking the pulse of industry is crucial to ensuring that up-to-the-minute trends, topics and practices make their way into the classroom. To ensure valuable input, all of FIU’s colleges and schools convene advisory boards of executives who represent the fields graduates are entering.

The Chaplin School of Hospitality and Tourism Management has nurtured important relationships with such advisors and relies heavily on their guidance to craft curricula and adjust courses so that students graduate with an understanding of the landscape they are entering.

Jerry Montgomery, chief human resources officer at cruise-industry leader Carnival Corporation, serves on the dean’s advisory board. “The Chaplin School is actively seeking advice, counsel and direction from the board to ensure that young men and women get an education that drives their ability to walk out with a diploma and be as employable as possible,” he says.

To that end, Chaplin’s academic leaders have spent the last year with Montgomery and more than a dozen other board members in regularly scheduled meetings and informal conversations to discuss a potential restructuring of the curriculum. There is talk of strategically revamping educational offerings that will result in graduates who are qualified to lead not only in the hospitality industry but in other growing sectors — such as nance and healthcare — that likewise rely heavily on a high quality of consumer or customer experiences.

Already Chaplin graduates are among the most quickly employed after graduation — in part because the school requires that students work in the field while earning degrees — and they can be found throughout the state in support of Florida’s $67 billion tourism industry as well as nationally and internationally in management positions.

Targeted workforce development

Recognizing the value of getting young people “up and running” while still in their undergraduate careers, funding agencies increasingly provide grants in support of workforce development.

One of the most successful programs is a collaboration between FIU’s Applied Research Center and the Department of Energy. It serves as a pipeline of highly qualified minority engineers trained to enter the DOE workforce mostly outside of the state or to take positions at energy and related companies within the state. The grant covers paid internships at sites such as Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

The program is a boon for companies such as Florida Power & Light that look for engineers ready to go. Former DOE fellow John Conley ’17 graduated with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and now works as a power distribution engineer (redesigning circuitry to reduce momentary losses in service) for the utility. The three internships he completed with the DOE — primarily in nuclear-waste management — bear little direct relation to the substance of his current job. He says, however, the high-level training he received from supervisors and mentors at the DOE sites, as well as the rigors of strict deadlines and high expectations, quickly launched him into a career after graduation.

“DOE showed me the workforce side. I no longer felt like a child,” he said of how the real-world assignments empowered him and later resonated with potential employers. “If you show them that you’re a critical thinker, you can solve problems, you can manage your workload and manage a team, that’s what they want to see. They don’t want inexperienced workers. They want you to be a superstar.”

A focus on universally valued skills

Conley’s experience is telling. Aside from graduates with the specific knowledge associated with a given field of study, employers are looking for job candidates who possess a quiver full of so-called soft skills. These include a proficiency in oral and written communication, competency in critical thinking and leadership potential, among others.

At FIU, emphasis on written communication includes required composition courses, with one-on-one help through campus writing centers available at no charge to students. The Honors College requires that students attend “design thinking” workshops that spark creativity and encourage innovative approaches to problems. The Center for Leadership and Service provides opportunities for personal growth and advancement to build leadership qualities while also teaching the value of teamwork. The Career and Talent Development department runs workshops to improve public speaking and analytical skills. These are but a few of the ways FIU helps mold students to contribute in whatever professional setting they land.

Andrew Dwyer graduated in December of 2017 and found that, on top of the strong curriculum that undergirded his twin degrees in international business and nance, his taking advantage of a host of experiences offered by the university helped him secure a highly competitive internship and a subsequent full-time job as a data analyst with Citigroup in Tampa.

As an undergraduate, Dwyer spent a semester studying in New Zealand — study abroad often signifying to employers an ability to move out of one’s comfort zone — and earned recognition at graduation for having taken four designated courses as part of Global Learning, an FIU initiative that fosters multi-perspective analyses of problems and promotes engagement in local, global, international and intercultural issues. On his own he completed an eight-hour online Bloomberg certification program that the College of Business makes available at no charge to students, plus he participated in a student organization designed to further develop his financial and investment skills and a business fraternity that provides interviewing tips and networking events.

“All of that really stood out to the recruiter,” says Dwyer, who believes his record of undergraduate activities confirmed a level of “intellectual curiosity” that his now-employer saw as fitting with the company’s culture.

Emphasis on nimbleness

For all its push to give students the knowledge and training so vital in today’s fast-paced marketplace, academic leaders understand that even the latest information will likely become outdated in a relatively short time and skills likewise will need adjusting. They speak of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, described as an era of new technologies that are fusing the physical, digital and biological worlds, and impacting — disrupting, some say — all disciplines, economies and industries.

Key to helping young people maintain the kind of adaptability sought by employers in the 21st century are the related traits of an entrepreneurial spirit and a commitment to lifelong learning.

FIU supports entrepreneurial thinking in a variety of ways. For example, it has unveiled business accelerators and incubators through StartUP FIU, a path for those with scalable business ideas — be they students, faculty, alumni or others within the community — to run with them. Competitions such as FIU’s home-grown GOJA Social Innovation Challenge as well as campus versions of the national Hult Prize have students competing to establish social enterprises. Startup Weekend (a program initiated by the global organization of the same name) brings young people together to build teams that collaborate for 48 hours to conceptualize products and jumpstart companies. The on-your-feet thinking fostered by such activities makes young graduates attractive to some of today’s newest and most innovative companies.

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For all the promise and potential that young grads take with them as they exit the university, diplomas in hand, staying relevant and growing into leadership roles will demand ongoing education. At FIU, as across the nation, the number of those seeking master’s degrees is on the rise, and the university offers year-round professional development, continuing education and a wide array of both credit and non-credit certidicate programs, among them human resources management, project management and business-oriented language instruction, to name a few.

“An undergraduate education is one step to preparing young people to excel in a world of continuous change,” says Furton, the FIU provost. “A four-year degree is a springboard to nonstop learning and the catalyst for a lifetime of acquiring and creating knowledge that serves both the individual and society.”