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Winning the Talent Pipeline Race

Sandy Shugart’s Learning Centered Paradigm

By: Dave Cocchiarella

Storytellers love the student-teacher dynamic. Pop culture tells tons of tales about unlikely learners and their teachers, beating overwhelming odds to find glorious success.

“Wax on, wax off.” Mister Miyagi teaches Daniel-san, in Karate Kid, by getting back to basics.

“Use the Force, Luke.” Obi Wan and Yoda teach their young apprentice by throwing him into the deep end of the pool in Star Wars.

“Snatch the pebble from my hand.” Master Po teaches Caine, wisdom is the source of all strength in the old TV series Kung Fu.

The student becomes the teacher. Cobra Kai falls, Darth Vader is turned, and peace and harmony are brought to the wild west.

This is largely the teacher-student paradigm today. What do we teach, how do we teach it, who do we teach to and when do we teach it to them? It is a teaching centered model, effective en masse perhaps, but an approach in which talent can be left undeveloped and students left untaught.

Fostering untapped talent isn’t a numbers game. By throwing many students into a carefully crafted curriculum, meeting the institution’s needs, only those students thriving in that environment succeed. Many others languish, fail or drop-out altogether.

And this is important, why?

Our new economy can no longer grow on the backs of unskilled labor — those groups that did not or could not excel in academics. Economic development is happening through information, technology and the digital workplace.

Even in massive clusters like manufacturing, a highly-trained workforce is just as necessary. Educators are no longer preparing students for their individual careers; they are preparing entire populations to fill the global talent pipeline.

Valencia College President Dr. Sandy Shugart says the metaphor of the talent pipeline may even be in itself evolving. “It’s linear, clear and efficient; the traditional pathway aligning people, institutions and careers,” said Shugart. “But most people who need to be educated are already working; how do you serve them?”

Shugart describes the talent pipeline as part of a larger ecosystem for talent, recognizing that not all talent can be found on the traditional pathway. “Tending to people outside the typical pipeline is just as important,” Shugart said. “The goal is getting people in the larger talent ecosystem aligned in the talent pipeline.”

Shugart has made a career operating the infrastructure of the talent ecosystem, having completed his doctoral work in 1989 at The University of North Carolina. Prior to that, Shugart worked as a teacher with Cobb County Schools, an instructor and research associate at the University of North Carolina, and with Governor Jim Hunt as a policy advisor on the North Carolina Board of Science and Technology.

As vice president and chief academic officer of the North Carolina Community College System for eight years, Shugart was responsible for all academic, technical and vocational programs. He continued his work in the community college world in Houston, Texas as the president of North Harris College. The college is the flagship institution in a district of four colleges and served 11,000 credit students per semester and 22,000 community education students per year.

Like much of the nation’s community college educators, Shugart began to take notice of then Valencia Community College in the late ‘90s. At the time, Valencia had begun a cultural shift in its approach to education and the direction fit well into how Shugart thought community colleges should operate. “In 1995, Valencia’s faculty and staff put their energies into developing a learning- centered approach to teaching,” according to Valenciacollege. edu. “This philosophy emphasizes individual student success and is still in effect today.”

Shugart took over the reins of Valencia College in January of 2000. Valencia College has since become nationally recognized as the best learning college in the country and in 2011 it was named the top community college in the United States by the Aspen Institute.

A considerable accomplishment, but Shugart is slow to accept credit for Valencia’s achievements. He says success at Valencia is a function of faculty and staff. Serving more than 70,000 students, Valencia has avoided the mistakes of other large institutions. “They have a tendency to see students as enrollment figures; that’s dehumanizing and has bad results,” said Shugart. “Valencia has concentrated on students, focusing every effort and resource on learning.”

To execute that vision, Shugart says his staff and faculty believe that “learning comes first, ahead of everything else.” He said, “If people learn well, they will perform well. Valencia recognizes that every student has the capacity to learn; anyone can learn under the right conditions. It’s our job to provide that unique set of conditions, to personalize the learning experience for every learner.”

Under Shugart’s guidance, Valencia’s learning-centered vision has broadened to include a workforce vison as well, providing talent to the I-4 corridor economic engine. The college has 34 workforce-related associate in science degree programs designed to train talent for immediate employment in specific jobs, or transfer into a related bachelor’s degree program.

Students are trained for specialized jobs in high-demand occupations in the region such as registered nurses, chefs, bio-technicians, computer programmers, film producers, cyber-security analysts and graphic designers. The success of this vision is the 93 percent to 97 percent of Valencia’s degree and certificate graduates placed in jobs or pursuing advanced degrees today.

Two talent ecosystem standouts at Valencia are the School of Public Safety and the Registered Nursing program. Valencia is one of the most recognized public safety training centers in Florida, providing education and training for first responders and public safety professionals including police, fire fighters, security officers, correctional and homeland security officers. The nursing program ranks among the top programs in Florida. The school provides the coursework required for a state certificate with nursing students working part-time in hospitals as part of their training.

Shugart says there are hospital chief executive officers and chief operation officers in our region who earned their first degree as a nurse at Valencia. “The program has been transformative and will double in the next three years. It’s a great example of how we stay close to industry.”

And medical is not the only industry that Valencia College stays close to in Central Florida. Each associate of science degree has a Workforce Advisory Board assisting the long-range planning of programs and ensuring curriculum remains relevant to regional business and industry needs. Valencia feeds the talent ecosystem with programs developed under the guidance of top community leaders and employers who know the skills students need to succeed. Currently, there are over 600 members serving on workforce advisory boards.

Shugart described another manner in which Valencia feeds the talent ecosystem with this metaphor: “Knowledge is the economic engine that pulls the train. If the caboose is too heavy, the train can’t move forward. Our caboose is the part of the workforce stuck in the $9/hour jobs.” He said Valencia College is on a unique mission to pull these people up from the bottom rungs of the workforce ladder and into the talent ecosystem and pipeline. “We can help people find economic mobility by scaling from $9/hour to $16/hour. Our big initiative is to retrain people for better jobs in programs like manufacturing, construction, transportation, logistics, electrical engineering, cardiovascular technology and digital media.”

In addition to nurturing the talent ecosystem, Valencia also participates whole-heartedly in the traditional talent pipeline. In 2006, the college established a unique partnership to expand students’ access to bachelor’s degrees. Together with the University of Central Florida, DirectConnect to UCF was created. The program guaranteed Valencia graduates admission to UCF in what has become the most productive university-community college partnership in the country.

Shugart acknowledges that earning a bachelor’s degree is “unquestionably valuable.” Valencia is now the largest producer of associate degrees and the largest producer of transfer students with an associate degree in the country. Notably, UCF is the largest receiver of transfer students with associate degrees, making the DirectConnect to UCF program a “powerful model to creating access to a bachelor’s degree.”

Valencia may just be the biggest pipe in the pipeline.

Being fixed on student learning, Valencia feeds both the talent ecosystem and the talent pipeline. “Understanding that college is not a destination,” said Shugart. “It is a bridge to a better education, better career and a better life. At Valencia, we want to be the best bridge we can be.”

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