Henry R. Mack III
Florida Dept. of Education

by Henry R. Mack, III, Chancellor, Division of Career, Technical, and Adult Education

Much has been written over the last decade about the disconnect between the skills businesses need from workers and the capabilities workers actually possess. This “skills gap” has troubled educators and employers alike, both nationally and in Florida. Our career and technical education (CTE) programs have served as a bridge across these gaps and, arguably, have accelerated the time it takes students to reach economic self-sufficiency compared to the traditional university pathway.

While CTE programs are crucial for filling job vacancies, the skills they provide aren’t the only ones sought by employers. In 2018, a report released by CareerSource Florida and the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity identified skills gaps that local industries said were causing thousands of job vacancies, including technical skills such as math, computer literacy and workplace-specific competencies. But employers were more than twice as likely to name foundational or “human skills” — communication, reliability, leadership and problem-solving — as lacking in the workforce.

This need is expected to continue in the coming decade. According to a host of academics and business leaders, including Harvard University economist David Deming and the World Economic Forum, employers believe the skills they will most desire in workers in 2030 will be mental agility, flexibility, risk propensity, and analytical thinking.

In other words, human skills matter to employers just as much as technical skills. Maybe even more.

In Florida, we’re committed to restoring these traditional intellectual and character virtues to the classroom, not only because it’s valuable to employers, but because it helps shape our students into well-rounded citizens. All students deserve the chance to learn these skills. Persistent opportunity gaps prevent that from happening, making it all the more critical that schools expand access to such programs to provide those opportunities.

Our state has found that one of the most effective ways to deliver this sort of instruction is through entrepreneurship education and training, which provides students with the experience-based learning opportunities associated with starting a business. These programs equip students with the skills they need to thrive in an ever-changing economy: abstract thought, collaboration, persistence and interpersonal relationships. They show students that persisting through failure leads to growth and, ultimately, success.

That’s why this year, for the first time, the Department of Education set aside $1.5 million leadership dollars from our $75 million allocation from The Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act, known as Perkins V, to bring entrepreneurship programs to schools and colleges across the state. School districts, technical programs and state colleges across Florida competed for grants of $25,000, $50,000 and $100,000 to bring entrepreneurship education to their classrooms. The outcome is well worth the state’s investment: students enrolled in these engaging curricula or co-curricular opportunities showed higher engagement rates, higher persistence rates and higher completion rates in their program of study.

Take, for example, the amazing work our students are doing in Volusia County and at Daytona State College. In Volusia dozens of school district faculty will be trained to teach entrepreneurship outcomes alongside welding, health care, and other CTE courses. At Daytona State College, students will be engaged to pitch their ideas to actual investors with the hope of getting their solution funded and out into the market. The resources also support the college’s bi-annual L. Gale Lemerand Entrepreneurial Speaker Series Event. Some teams have created start-ups that continue to function as businesses long after the school year ends.

These programs are not about creating the next big thing, however. Entrepreneurship programs give students a window into a world they might not ever see, one that rewards perseverance, adaptability and creativity. And it narrows the opportunity gap that prevents some students from learning the human skills that employers say they so desperately need in a model workforce.

This is the first year of a five-year plan for spending a portion of our Perkins V allocation on entrepreneurship education. We remain committed to the ultimate goal of making the idea of entrepreneurship education and training a permanent part of Florida’s CTE experience. Thankfully, Perkins V helps provide the necessary resources.

Imagine what might happen if we achieve this goal. Our graduates would not only possess the technical skills employers need, but can add increased value to the workplace as “intrapreneurs” — employees equipped with the ability to ideate, communicate, and accelerate a company’s product or mission to the next level. Workers would be more capable of assisting with the day-to-day challenges Florida’s business community identified in the 2018 report, such as motivation, team participation and active listening. And they would be far more prepared to navigate the future of work — the impact of automation and other high-tech tools — by knowing how to pivot and embrace change.

CTE programs on their own can be mechanisms for not just overall economic stabilization, but for growth in local and regional economies. By supplementing that instruction with the human skills employers need – and doing so while teaching them interdisciplinary entrepreneurial competencies – Florida will be ensuring that a new generation of graduates will be ready for the jobs of the future.