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Campus organizes industry focus groups on local workforce needs to ensure graduates are prepared for job market

Leaders from employers in environmental science and marine biology convene for one of the industry focus groups.

Employers in environmental science and marine biology convene with USF faculty in those disciplines for one of the industry focus groups.

By Matthew Cimitile, University Communications and Marketing

A series of industry focus groups tied to USF St. Petersburg’s most popular majors provided valuable insight into students’ career readiness and whether graduates are meeting the needs of local employers.

Bringing together more than 40 leaders from employers in criminology, environmental science and marine biology, finance, graphic design, journalism and health sciences, the goal of the focus groups was to highlight skills and competencies employers are looking for from graduates entering the workforce. The conversations deepened connections between local employers and campus faculty from the same disciplines as well as gauged the experiences of businesses and organizations who have hired USF students to determine what skill gaps need to be addressed. 

“Universities should be plugging into their community as much as possible to ensure we are meeting their needs with our educational curriculum and training,” said Caryn Nesmith, director of community relations at USF St. Petersburg, who organized the focus groups. “These sessions provided a great opportunity for us to engage with leaders of top employers and get their feedback.”

Overall, businesses and organizations that participated in the focus groups provided positive feedback regarding USF St. Petersburg students’ preparedness and potential.

Sessions were led by USF Marketing Professor Phil Trocchia and conducted through the Customer Experience Lab in the Kate Tiedemann School of Business and Finance. The lab is used to conduct live focus groups for consumer research and has been used by organizations like the Tampa Bay Rays

“This was a really forward-thinking idea by the university to create a space for these discussions and further connect us with the campus,” said Kim Amendola, the southeast deputy regional administrator for NOAA Fisheries and a USF alum. “We have a lot of USF grads that work here, and some NOAA scientists teach at the campus. I saw this as another way of paying it forward with a key partner.”

Throughout each of the sessions, employers stressed the need for graduating students to have a balance of technical and soft skills in various industries. Skills mentioned across focus groups included effective communication and relationship-building, being adaptable when it comes to technology, having a professional work demeanor and participating in practical experiences through group projects, field work and internships.

Other industry-specific takeaways discussed during these sessions included: 

  • Marine biology and environmental science graduates demonstrated a strong work ethic and satisfaction in their first roles;
  • A hybrid work environment is common in graphic design and creative fields, so time management, organizational skills and an ability to drive one’s personal process are vital;
  • Health science students benefit from more simulation activities with “what if” scenarios to develop appropriate responses to unclear decision-making conditions; and
  • Technical skills, such as customer relationship management and analytics, are key in financial services.

“These conversations provided us with a touchpoint of what our area’s employers need and highlighted the multidimensional skill set required for success in the modern workforce,” Nesmith said.

Recommendations that came out of these sessions included mandating professionalism courses, organizing more panel conversations between students and employers, emphasizing soft skills in curriculum and fostering more collaborative partnerships between academia and industry. 

“It was an eye-opening experience hearing from our local employers firsthand about the strengths and weaknesses of new hires and improving career readiness of students,” said Dawn Cecil, campus chair of the Criminology Department at USF St. Petersburg. “It made me think what can I do in my own classes – from conversations about professionalism to further stressing punctuality – that can help them better understand what it takes for a career in this field.” 

Campus administrators and faculty are now looking into incorporating some of these recommendations in the future to help better equip future graduates for the job market.

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