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Scott says higher ed efforts 'about building a workforce'

Jobs and education were the main points in Gov. Rick Scott's third State of the State speech. It comes as he prepares to seek re-election and at times seemed better received by Democratic lawmakers more than his Republican colleagues.
Jobs and education were the main points in Gov. Rick Scott's third State of the State speech. It comes as he prepares to seek re-election and at times seemed better received by Democratic lawmakers more than his Republican colleagues.

ORLANDO, Fla. – Gov. Rick Scott on Thursday wrapped up a two-day higher education conference in Orlando with a list of goals that included making colleges and universities more affordable and more responsive to the needs of businesses.

The second day of the "Degrees to Jobs Summit" included sessions about trying to make Florida first in jobs for university and college graduates, along with discussions about keeping students in the state after they graduate.

"If our students are the best-educated in the country --- in the world --- the companies are going to be here," Scott said. "This is about building a workforce."

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam noted that many of his classmates at the University of Florida left the state after graduation.

"We can reverse that flow, and we must reduce that flow," Putnam said.

Cammy Abernathy, dean of engineering at the University of Florida, said today's graduates approach careers with the belief that they will change jobs multiple times. Some are afraid they'll lose opportunities if they stay in Florida, she added.

"The way to get around that is to show them there are opportunities in the state of Florida --- in the Southeast in general," Abernathy said. "If we grow the jobs and the grads at the same time, we'll keep more of the grads in Florida."

Putnam also said Florida should have at least one other state institution besides his alma mater as a member of the prestigious, 62-member Association of American Universities.

"The AAU schools in this country produce 60 percent of doctoral degrees and over half of the science and engineering degrees," he said. "The third-largest state needs another AAU school, and we need a plan and a pathway to get there."

Scott held the conference to bring together business and education leaders, but the event drew criticism from the United Faculty of Florida, which said it was not invited.

"Without meaningful faculty participation, this summit does little to move Florida's higher education system to the next level of excellence,'' the group, which represents more than 22,000 faculty members, said in a statement this week.

Scott on Wednesday used the conference to challenge colleges and universities to help full-time students graduate in four years rather than as many as six years. That call, said University of West Florida President Judy Bense, was her top takeaway of the conference.

"Those two extra years cost time, money, in many different ways," she said. "So I hope that's going to be the cornerstone of (Scott's) action plan."

Bense also said bringing the business people and university people together had been a success.

"It happens all the time in our communities and our regions, but it hasn't happened on this scale," she said. "My new trustees and my older trustees --- they like it. They made connections, because they're businessmen and (business) women, too."

The conference ended with Scott conducting a three-way interview with football coaches Jimbo Fisher of Florida State University, Jim McElwain of the University of Florida and Mark Richt of the University of Miami.