Colleges tout need to mesh academia with hiring realities

When Barry University negotiates a vendor contract, it may have a few requests beyond the lowest prices and speedy delivery: finding jobs for its students.

“We are changing our RFP process,’’ Sara Herald, the university’s vice president of external affairs, told a business panel Wednesday morning. To compete for Barry’s business, vendors may be asked about conducting employment interviews on the school’s Miami Shores campus and how many internships might be available for Barry students to pursue. “We want to make it a two-way street,’’ Herald said.

By tapping its procurement arm for some career-placement help, Barry reflects the ongoing effort by South Florida colleges and universities to mesh their academic operations with hiring realities. That was the theme of a panel of education administrators gathered by the Beacon Council to discuss how a new economic-development strategy is influencing local high schools, colleges and universities.

The plan by the tax-funded organization is called One Community One Goal, and it targets a list of industries seen as most likely to benefit Miami-Dade’s economy: aviation, creative design, tourism, international finance, technology, science and medicine, and trade. One element of the plan, released 12 months ago, is for Miami-Dade’s schools to adjust their offerings to match the strategy, and produce more graduates ready to work in those targeted industries.

The gathering of more than 400 Beacon Council members and guests at Miami Dade College’s downtown campus comes as the organization searches for a new CEO after the ouster of long-time Beacon Council head Frank Nero.

Bill Johnson, director of Port Miami, said he is interested in the post and this week saw one potential hurdle removed for his pursuit of the job. Juan Kuryla, Johnson’s deputy, has turned down the offer to become director at the Jacksonville port, Paula Musto, Port Miami spokeswoman, said Wednesday. Kuryla had pursued the job and was made an offer, but this week the Jacksonville port said it was resuming a search for a new director.

Other people who have been named as potential Nero successors: former Miami Beach City Manager Jorge Gonzalez, Jorge Arrizurieta, who recently helped run the Miami Dolphins’ stadium referendum campaign, and Luis Lauredo, a former ambassador to the Organization of American States. The next Beacon Council CEO will be charged with implementing the One Community plan, which is designed to create more well-paying jobs in Miami-Dade.

Schools assembled for the Beacon Council panel — Barry, Florida International University, Florida Memorial University, Miami Dade College, St. Thomas University, University of Miami and the county’s public school system — said they were using the plan as a resource in mapping out how to accommodate the needs of South Florida’s economy. Administrators and business executives talked of the region’s most promising graduates leaving for better jobs elsewhere, even as some of the area’s signature industries can’t find a steady stream of qualified applicants.

Makola Abdullah, provost at Florida Memorial University, told the audience that colleges often get criticized for an “ivory tower” mentality removed from the real world. But Florida Memorial’s curriculum directly reflects one of the region’s leading industries: aviation.

Abdullah noted his school recently purchased a small airplane to serve its aviation program, which incudes minors in both air-traffic control and homeland security. At FIU, the school has launched a program with the Miami Foundation to create more local internships so that students can settle into a local career path rather than search elsewhere after graduation.

“They are going to Silicon valley and they are going to Seattle. They’ll even go to Indiana,’’ said FIU’s Irma Becerra-Fernandez, vice president of engagement. “One they are graduate, they are getting these great offers.”

The discussion comes amid renewed focus in state capitols and Washington to force academicians to deliver more practical results for students beyond a broad-based education.

Gov. Rick Scott wants state-funded schools to focus on science, technology, engineering and math, given that employers say they need more workers trained in those fields rather than liberal arts. President Barack Obama put community colleges and their vocational programs in the center of his higher-education plan, saying the more affordable schools are key to keeping the American workforce trained and competitive.

William Green, vice provost at UM and a religion professor, sounded the only note of caution about the drive to put career training at the center of academia. He noted schools struggled to stay relevant. “By the time we set up a degree,’’ he said, “what we are preparing people for is already yesterday’s work.”