Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Southwest Florida college working to bridge the skills gap

Hodges University is developing something any employer should covet: A program that teaches foundational — and soft — skills to a variety of employees.

John Meyer considers himself the "poster child" of Hodges University, having left college early and later returning to complete his education. Stefania Pifferi photo
John Meyer considers himself the "poster child" of Hodges University, having left college early and later returning to complete his education. Stefania Pifferi photo
  • Education
  • Share

John Meyer considers himself the poster boy for Hodges University. He left college in New Jersey two credits shy of graduation to become an automotive technician.

After moving to Southwest Florida and hitting the advancement ceiling by age 33, he enrolled at Hodges — then called International College — to complete his bachelor’s in accounting in 1999, and a master’s in finance and marketing in 2000, all while getting grease under his fingernails during the day.

Nearly two decades later, Meyer is president of Hodges University. The school, with locations in Fort Myers and Naples, focuses on degree completion — perfectly tracking Meyer's educational stages. 

Noted for his expertise in business and economics, Meyer, previously dean of the School of Business and Technology at Florida SouthWestern State College, was named president in December 2017. Now he's guiding Hodges in a new direction. That includes an emphasis on developing foundational skills, which he says form a wide crevice between an employee’s technical skills and the ability to function effectively in the workplace.

Meyer, toward that goal, is spearheading the launch of a professional credential program. Dubbed the Professional Effectiveness Certificate program, it's for companies of any size to offer employees training in foundational (or soft, in some cases) skills gaps surveys show are in demand. These include adaptability, business understanding, communication, customer service, judgment, organization, proactivity and being a team player. 

The PEC program is customizable, portable and adaptable to specific industry needs. 

“Workforce development is an area I am very passionate about, and I believe very firmly that it's almost a dirty word sometimes,” says Meyer. “It conjures images of greasy fingernails, dirty uniforms, low wages and long hours, but really nothing could be further from the truth. Workforce means any kind of a job that requires any skills to do, all the way up to medical doctors and CPAs or lawyers. It's all workforce.”

Although technical education has advanced, Meyer says imparting practical knowledge has failed to keep pace. Basic societal behavioral training necessary for interaction between co-workers and with customers once inherent by the time students graduate high school is now lacking, and it manifests itself on the manufacturing floor, in the office and in customer-facing occupations, exacerbating an already tight labor market. 

“These are all skills that those us of a certain vintage were likely learned at home or places of worship or in schools and reinforced on television in cultural cues,” says Meyer. “Those cultural reinforcements don’t exist in the same ways. It’s not just Southwest Florida. It’s a worldwide phenomenon in that these skills are lacking across the board, now moving into the third generation.”

That the region was not alone in this phenomenon became apparent when a coalition of business, education and community leaders organized by the Southwest Florida Community Foundation in 2012 sought model programs elsewhere. While they found the skills gaps were common, organized efforts to bridge them were not. Subsequent years of study and employer surveys revealed areas employers consistently indicated were lacking in foundational skills. 

To address these shortfalls, Hodges University developed the PEC curriculum in conjunction with major local employers Lee Health, Arthrex and Chico’s FAS, along with employment consultant Career Source and Florida SouthWestern State College. "Since there wasn’t a study that verified any of this does work," says Meyer, "the next best thing was get industry involved.”

Following two years of development, Hodges administered pilots of the program, using the data and feedback to make modifications. Up next? Achieve critical mass. "Then we will have something that is documented and at that point the loop will be closed,” Meyer says. 

Strive for 55

The PEC curriculum, based on the research, resulted in five modules: Introduction to Computers; Effective Business Communication; Improving Your Personal Productivity; Developing a Successful Mindset; and Fundamentals of Business. 

Successful completion of the five modules provides certification that can be included on a resume and job application. Employers can opt to offer the program, all or in part, to employees to improve performance, provide advancement opportunities and encourage retention. Individuals can also enroll in the program on their own.

Completion of all five modules costs $1,975. Certification requires 200 hours to complete and a grade of 80 or higher to pass.

The genesis of the program began when the Southwest Florida Community Foundation formed the Future Makers Coalition. The goal: Transform the local workforce by increasing the number of working-age adults who hold a degree or high-quality credential from about 27% to 55%, resulting in a deeper local talent pool rather than companies recruiting workers from outside the region. 

“We did a survey of 105 business and asked them what the top five missing foundational skills were for entry level employees and what they were for seasoned employees. Four of the five were the same.” John Meyer

“The foundation did a study to find the needs in the region, and education in the workforce issues rose to the top,” says Tessa LeSage, director of social innovation and sustainability for SWCF and program pioneer. “We spent the last four years working with other partners to develop a program focused on improving the education system from cradle to career and working to address some of the challenges people currently in the workforce pipeline have in hopes of hiring them to fill in-demand jobs by acquiring skills needed for those jobs.”

Research indicated some skills gaps lie at the most basic levels, adds Hodges University Learning and Engagement Specialist Andrea Fortin. “Some of the key things they found was people couldn’t talk on the phone, show up to work on time, lacked basic teamwork skills and conflict resolution at both entry and mid-level positions,” Fortin says.

The result, LeSage says, was many advertised jobs, particularly first-line supervisory positions, remained vacant because local companies were unable to recruit from outside the region or hire local qualified personnel. Also, those who were recruited from outside the region often didn’t stay. Local residents with roots in the community are a better bet for retention, adds LeSage. 

Retention, of course, goes both ways. The employee has to prove to the employer he or she belongs, which is why the PEC program is so relevant.   

“We don't want people just passively absorbing the material,” says Fortin. “They have to actively demonstrate they can apply these principles. You have to have these foundational skills in order to succeed in day-to-day interactions, to get promoted, to problem-solve in the moment, and just working with people to get the job done.”

Not a panacea

While there are several benefits of PEC — helping people without college degrees advance in the workplace and improving the region's talent pool, for starters — Meyer says it's a potential mistake to try to "characterize this program in and of itself as the holy grail because it isn’t." Also, he adds, depending on the industry, "there may be more technical skills needed first.”

"(PEC) is an element. It's the first of many other pieces we will work toward building," says Meyer. "The thing everybody can agree (on) were these foundational skills."

Meyer points to heating contractors as an example of what the program can do. A new hire may be highly qualified in technical abilities yet lack customer-facing foundational skills, limiting the technician to certain functions and the company in ways it can use the employee. Depending on the goals of both, one or more of the PEC modules short of the entire program may provide appropriate training.

“We are headed in the direction of theoretical and practical skills enhancement for people whose training has not caught up to the level of occupational complexity,” Meyer says. “There is a gap between what we're teaching and what we're expecting people to do.”


Latest News