More college courses aimed at job market

Douglas Hanks / The Miami Herald /

Published Sep 12, 2012 at 05:00AM

MIAMI — The glossy brochure promoting Miami Dade College’s School of Science begins with the expected lofty language about teaching students to question, investigate and formulate conclusions about the world.

But directly under the “Mission” heading, the new pamphlet gets down to business, laying out the paycheck prospects for graduates. Biological technician: $38,396. Horticulturist: $34,511. Environmental technician: $40,227.

“That’s what the students care about right now,’’ Dean Heather Belmont said.

High unemployment and battered household finances have colleges working harder to tie their classroom offerings to job offers.

From creating courses to accommodate a new industry to customizing a curriculum to a specific employer’s hiring criteria, schools are pushing to narrow the gap between academia and the real world.

It’s a long-running trend that has accelerated during the recession and limp recovery, at a time when many employers refuse to hire candidates without the exact skills needed for a position.

“How do you become marketable with a degree in management?’’ asked Robert Sellani, an associate professor of operations management and accounting at Nova Southeastern University in Davie, Fla. “It’s not easy.”

Sellani presides over NSU’s new supply-chain master’s program, which is designed to train students on the nuts-and-bolts of moving goods for companies. He said the program came in part from looking around at businesses poised for growth in South Florida, despite the wobbly economy.

With the cargo industry growing, Sellani said supply management looked ripe for funneling students into jobs at some of South Florida’s top employers. “We’ve had interest from City Furniture. We’ve had interest from Office Depot,’’ he said. “We’ve had interest from Royal Caribbean.”

No field is too narrow. The University of Miami now offers a post-graduate course on real estate development, and Florida International University is rolling out a course of study on medical paperwork.

The economic downturn has put a bigger focus than ever on the role education plays in not just landing jobs for students but also improving their wages. With about 3.7 million job openings nationwide — the highest since 2008 — experts see a “skills gap” as a main reason for an unemployment rate topping 8 percent.

As the recession began in late 2007, Miami Dade College launched a bio-tech program within its biology department and has seen demand soar. What attracted about 45 students in the beginning now has nearly 200 students enrolled.

“My friends from pre-med, they say, ‘Oh, why are you taking bio-tech? It’s just tech and research,’ ” said Katherine Leon, a 26-year-old working on a DNA analyzer inside a lab at MDC’s north campus. “But pre-med is just theory.”

A two-year degree, MDC’s biotech program narrows the sort of biological training a student might receive in a broader health care track and focuses on skills needed for entry-level lab positions.

“My students are truly being prepared to be scientists,’’ said Belmont, the dean. “We’re training them to be technicians. But we also give them the knowledge to move on.”