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Dr John Meyer
Dr John Meyer
Jeanette Brock
Wilson Bradshaw

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Americans change jobs almost as quickly as NASCAR pit crews change tires.

So why spend four years in college preparing for a job you may only hold a few years?

Colleges recognize the job-switching, career-changing nature of their graduates, and have begun broadening the curriculum so students aren’t left high and dry when job No. 1 doesn’t pan out.

“The best-prepared students are those who are able to leverage their skill sets,” said John Meyer, dean of business and technology at Edison State College.

Gone are the days when colleges train students for one trade or occupation. Instead, the focus is on providing skills and knowledge that can be applied to multiple occupations.

A degree in digital design at Hodges University, for instance, prepares students for jobs in Web design, architectural drafting, computer animation, graphic design and pretty much anything else that combines creativity with computers. Professors concentrate as much on conveying technical knowledge as they do on a college-wide push to master five outcomes: critical thinking; initiative, leadership ability, effective communication and research ability.

“That will help prepare students for jobs that we aren’t even aware of now,” said President Jeanette Brock.

Locally, higher education leaders have spent the past year analyzing their roles in Southwest Florida’s economy. Through the Workforce Now initiative, Meyer said it became clear that some job descriptions didn’t match all of the skills and abilities needed to actually do the job, and that’s what colleges were teaching.

“We were able to drill down and find out what an employer needs in an employee,” Meyer said.

And what it needs, Meyer said, was surprising: workers who are technically competent, but also able to solve problems, think outside the box, work in groups, dress appropriately and show up to work on time.

Generalized majors

Southwest Florida institutions have begun offering more degree programs with less specific titles. Ave Maria and Barry universities offer liberal studies majors. Hodges, Keiser and Nova Southeastern universities each offer degrees in interdisciplinary studies, which allows students some flexibility to choose a variety of courses rather than a specific sequence of classes.

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The program description at Hodges states that graduates will be “prepared to adapt to change, fulfill social responsibilities, understand the global perspective, adhere to standards of excellence and appreciate life-long learning.”

Charles Bell, associate dean of enrollment management at Barry’s Fort Myers location, said the university offers several majors that train students to enter a broad field, such as the health care industry.

“It’s not aimed at a specific job, but at the experience and tools necessary to be successful in that field,” Bell said.

Not all college degrees are generalized, though.

FGCU has introduced programs tied directly to Southwest Florida’s economy, like doctorates in physical therapy and education, and a bachelor’s in software engineering. Others relate to the environmental and hospitality, two fields that help drive Southwest Florida’s economy.

“If you look at the programs that were added in recent years, it’s obvious we have been responsive to the needs of Southwest Florida,” FGCU President Wilson Bradshaw said.

The fact that Southwest Florida’s leading jobs don’t require a college education isn’t lost on higher education leaders. Bradshaw said the under-reliance on jobs requiring a postsecondary education was exposed when the market crumbled. FGCU has expanded its engineering programs, and a degree in renewable energy engineering is in the works.

“Our dependence on construction and tourism put us at a great disadvantage during the economic downturn,” Bradshaw said. “That was a wakeup call that Southwest Florida needed to diversify its economy.”

Visit the Market Watch: Workforce Now page.

Connect with Dave Breitenstein on Twitter (@D_Breitenstein) and Facebook (DaveBreitenstein).

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