TAMPA — Sri Sridharan is on a daunting mission: to create the state's first cybersecurity center at the University of South Florida, developing a curriculum by this fall for an inaugural class of master's degree candidates.
Over the past year, he examined 181 different institutions offering at least one cyber-security course and assembled a team of 10 expert faculty members.
But Sridharan also reached outside academia, getting advice from corporations like IBM, Raymond James Financial and Bright House. And he met with two colonels from U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base. Among their suggestions: Infuse the study of psychology and digital forensics into his curriculum and expose students to the fast-emerging field of cybersecurity law.
Sridharan, a tech entrepreneur before joining USF, said he values drawing real-world insights from as many companies as he can. "I wanted to get a full spectrum," he said.
Chalk up one more example of how the ties that bind business and higher education are strengthening. One might even say a back-to-school movement is sweeping through companies in Florida.
Even during the Great Recession when they weren't actively recruiting, many businesses kept a consistent presence on college campuses, branding themselves through giveaways and gatherings to remain top-of-mind career options for graduates.
Now, they're going further.
They're helping develop college curricula. They're bringing university professors to their office parks for continuous learning and MBA programs for employees. And they're creating new ways via internships and on-the-job training to match grads with hard-to-fill jobs.
The Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce and area universities are spearheading one new job placement effort, dubbed Education Connection! Led by Doug Pace of the Web development firm Bayshore Solutions and Susan Stackhouse, CEO of airport concessionaire Stellar Partners, the group is initially targeting niches in IT and medical manufacturing.
The program's online pitch sounds like its should be accompanied by dramatic, orchestral music:
"Imagine a community where leaders in academia and commerce meet to determine how they can change the community and their respective industries for the better. Where educational institutions work with business leaders to determine what makes employees effective, what skills are needed in the workplace, and what curriculum gives the student the best possible chance at being successful. … Some might say this sounds like ancient Greece, a utopian society, or maybe even Silicon Valley — but it's happening in Tampa Bay via Education Connection!"
"This hasn't rolled out yet … but there's a lot of interest," chamber president Bob Rohrlack said. "We're looking for ways to help get our graduates groomed to stay here to get experience in the workforce. It's a great way to keep the best and brightest here."
USF provost Ralph Wilcox views the emerging partnerships as part of a broader evolution, one in which learning based on work experience and career preparation is gaining a foothold over traditional classroom lectures.
"The days of faculty sitting comfortably in their ivory tower are long, long behind us," Wilcox said. "The reality is that universities have rapidly shifted their gaze from inward- to outward-looking. … It's very important to all that higher education helps in creating new jobs."
One of the clearest local examples, he notes, is USF's fledgling sports and entertainment management MBA program. Created in 2012 through the financial backing of Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik, the two-year program's first class graduated in May.
Seventeen of the 19 students had lined up jobs by graduation or soon after, working for Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario, Calif., the Westchester Knicks (an affiliate of the New York Knicks), the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Tampa Bay Rays, the North American Sports Group and the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino.
One newly minted MBA, Josh Momberg, said working as a Rays intern for the past two years helped him transition into a "dream-come-true" full-time job with the Rays in corporate sales upon graduating.
"It's not getting coffee and making copies," said Momberg, 28, of lessons learned during his internship. "It's taking ownership of things that have real repercussions. There's a sense of accountability in everyday work you do."
Job placement rewarded
Business-education partnerships are being driven partly by politics. Florida's universities are being pressed to do a better job of placing students in jobs after graduation as a condition for state funding.
In deciding how to dole out some $100 million in performance-based funding, the state compares its universities under 10 measures. Among the yardsticks: how soon new graduates find jobs and how well they're being paid.
"There's been a pivot around our state university systems focusing on responding to workforce needs," said Brian Lamb, Fifth Third Bank's Tampa Bay president and a member of the USF board of trustees. "It strikes right at the head of where higher education is connecting with the business world."
Increasingly, universities are doling out baccalaureate degrees in IT, health care and other industries facing shortages. Conversely, Lamb said, they are examining "nonstrategic" liberal arts degrees to decide whether to "terminate, suspend or modify" them to make them more attractive and more relevant for prospective students.
"We are absolutely seeing a higher percentage of students graduating in science, technology, engineering and math," Lamb said. "That's a mutually beneficial strategy that meets demands in the community and the interest of students."
Beyond its cybersecurity launch, USF also recently won millions in state funding for courses to help plug workforce gaps in IT and accounting.
Some of the efforts, like the Tampa chamber's Education Connection launch, are emanating from the business community. In other cases, pro-active universities are trying to forecast business needs.
Tech Data Corp., for instance, didn't ask the University of Tampa to implement classes in SAP, an integrated business software program.
But it was a perfect match, technologically speaking. Tech Data, the largest public company in Tampa Bay, had recently finished converting its business process operations to run on SAP.
"When we need bright, young talent to run the company's systems, it helps that they're already training them," said Bob Dutkowsky, Tech Data's CEO.
Tech Data is also bringing higher ed expertise in-house, running an on-site MBA program after hours and on weekends through Saint Leo University.
In the eight years he's been running the company, Dutkowsky said the working relationship between business and higher education has never been stronger.
'Value placed on skills'
Within academia, there have been concerns that business will go too far in informing curriculum redesign.
"There's a delicate balance," Wilcox acknowledged. But at this point, he doesn't believe the pendulum has swung too far.
"This is not about abandoning academics for technical education," he said. "There are still high schools and technical colleges … and even programs in state colleges that are much better prepared for reaching the needs of that workforce than universities. The fundamental difference is this is a shift away from a myopic focus on content and knowledge to a more integrated value placed on skills."
Those include critical thinking skills for solving problems, researching and communicating. Such skills never diminish in value, Wilcox said, no matter where a graduate ends up working.
The hope is that as long as an emphasis on such "soft skills" remains, higher education will stay true to a long-standing core mission beyond lining up jobs for alumni: namely, preparing students for life.
Contact Jeff Harrington at email@example.com or (813) 226-3434. Follow @JeffMHarrington.