Florida Education, Government Collaborate to Help Meet Future Workforce Demands

The state has expanded a cooperative partnership that links Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University with secondary schools to increase the aerospace STEM proficiency of Florida's students — and prepare a future workforce.

by / September 3, 2015
Florida is ranked as the No. 2 largest aviation, aerospace and space establishment by the U.S. Department of Labor. Shutterstock

Florida leaders believe filling future workforce gaps requires a collaborative effort among government, education and industry, and the state is testing the theory through a college/high school partnership program that provides secondary students around the state with in-demand technical skills and college credits.

Florida is already ranked No. 1 in the nation in aviation manufacturing attractiveness by PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP and ranked as the No. 2 largest aviation, aerospace and space establishment by the U.S. Department of Labor. But pinpointing the next areas of growth within those industries is key to maintaining those rankings and preparing for the future. 

So when a 2013 report from the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International estimated that the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) industry will have a $3.8 billion economic impact on Florida and would create over 4,000 jobs, state leaders saw the writing on the wall. 

“We believe the needs of the future workforce in Florida are around Unmanned Aerial Vehicles,” said Colleen Conklin, director of the Gaetz Aerospace Institute and assistant professor of Aeronautical Science. “It’s an industry that Florida really wants to be prepared for. We want to position ourselves as the No. 1 state in the United States that's business friendly and welcoming to the UAV industry.”

In total, the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International report estimates more than 100,000 new UAV jobs will be created by 2025. It also predicts that states that create favorable regulatory and business environments for the industry and the technology will siphon jobs away from states that do not.

Recognizing that led Florida to expand a program originally founded in 2004 called the Gaetz Aerospace Institute. The Gaetz Aerospace Institute is a cooperative partnership that links Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, a fully accredited university specializing in aviation and aerospace, with secondary schools to increase the aerospace STEM proficiency of Florida's students and to prepare a future workforce.

“The partnership between the university and secondary schools actually began in 2004 when a school district in Okaloosa County approached the university about developing an aviation program because many of its schools were close to military bases that were in need of workers,” said Conklin. 

The partnership formed, and the Gaetz Aerospace Institute was born. Since then, the program has grown dramatically. 

“When I first came on board, we were in four school districts and a handful of high schools,” said Conklin. “Since then, we’ve worked very hard at expanding our programs in the areas of unmanned aerial vehicles, aviation, flight engineering, aerospace engineering, and programming. It’s very exciting to see those opportunities expand.”

In the past four years, the university has appropriated nearly $30 million in funds that have translated into research, outreach initiatives, infrastructure and projects that underscore Embry-Riddle’s dedication to the aerospace workforce and continued innovation in the state and local community. This year, Gov. Rick Scott included $3 million in funding for the project in his 2015 budget. The funding has enabled significant expansion of the program. This fall, the program will be available in 34 Florida counties and roughly 70 high schools.

Through the partnership, high schools can offer students the opportunity to enroll in Embry-Riddle courses for university credit. The concurrent enrollment follows the high school schedule, so students don’t have to leave campus to attend courses. In addition to free college credits, the program offers hands-on experience in courses focusing on aviation, unmanned systems, aerospace, engineering, computers and business. 

“It opens career doors to young people in Florida that they might not have been able to pursue or otherwise even consider,” said Conklin. “By preparing these students with real-life skills and knowledge, we are working hand-in-hand with the state to guarantee a pipeline of talent for Florida’s growing aerospace industry.”

In total, more than 2,300 high school students have participated or are currently participating in the program.

Conklin said the Gaetz Aerospace Institute also recently began working with industry to connect the program to industry certifications in the area of unmanned vehicle safety.

“We're actually one of the first programs in the country to offer that, so that's very exciting,” she said. 

Overall, Conklin said it’s all about working together to respond to future needs.

“You really need that partnership with education, with state government, and with industry to make it all work,” she said. 

Justine Brown Contributing Writer