For higher education leaders in Northeast Florida, the problem was simple but working toward a solution proved infinitely more complicated.
In 2012, the percentage of residents age 25 to 64 in Baker, Clay, Duval, Nassau, Putnam, and St. Johns counties who possessed an associate’s degree or higher was 36.4%, which trailed Florida’s overall rate of 38.1%.
Since that time, Earn Up — a local college access network (LCAN) serving NE Florida — has played a key role in narrowing the degree attainment gap between the region and the rest of the state.
The most recent data for 2016 reveals the region’s 39.6% attainment rate is only 0.3 percentage points behind the state’s overall 39.9% rate. St. Johns County (53.7%) boasts the second highest proportion of working-age residents with an associate’s degree or higher among all Florida counties.
Additionally, NE Florida’s 3.2% improvement from 2012 to 2016 is significantly greater than Florida’s 1.8% improvement over that same time period.
Earn Up officially launched December 1, 2014. While the region’s colleges were already bonded with each other, Earn Up has helped higher education leaders connect with other organizations in the community.
“Business and higher ed are more connected than they’ve ever been,” said Tina Wirth said, vice president of workforce development for JAXUSA Partnership, the economic development division of the JAX Chamber.
The leaders from NE Florida’s various sectors — business, higher ed, K-12, nonprofit, etc. — were not always as connected as they are today.
Back in 2012, JAXUSA Partnership was approached by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 2012 to pursue work in convening all colleges in the area in order to boost the region’s postsecondary attainment rate.
“We had the right people in the room, but we didn’t have the trust yet,” Wirth said. “The bricks were there, but not the mortar.”
That effort ultimately proved to be unsuccessful, but a subsequent attempt to bring leaders from various sectors together — courtesy of The Lumina Foundation — resulted in the creation of Earn Up.
Earn Up’s motto of “Higher Earning through Higher Learning” is based on research that shows the single greatest predictor of economic success in a community is the number of people with high-quality degrees and industry certifications who live there.
Wirth said the Earn Up brain trust incorporated some of the lessons learned during its previous attempt to launch a collective impact group.
“We now had some understanding of what this works looks like and how to structure it,” she said. “When the Lumina opportunity came up, we were ready.”
Business and higher education leaders met for 4-6 half-day sessions over the course of a summer to establish a charter and structure.
“The timeframe was brutal, but it was also a great bonding opportunity for all of us,” Wirth said. “Our messaging from day one was different from the prior attempt: we weren’t going to try to be a $1 million entity. We would be a neutral convener that leveraged data and drove strategies.”
Wirth said Earn Up’s work has included promoting the growth of early college and career academies like The Johnson & Johnson Vision Care, Inc. Academy of Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering at Jacksonville’s Englewood High School. The dual enrollment program provides Englewood students the chance to earn, in addition to their high school diploma, an Associate of Science (AS) degree in Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering from Florida State College at Jacksonville (FSCJ).
Earn Up is also focused on engaging adult learners with some or no college experience through their places of work.
“We’ve found most of our adult residents like the quality of life here,” Wirth said. “They just don’t know how to advance their career potential.”
One of the success stories highlighted by Earn Up involves a partnership between CareerSource NEFL, Jacksonville’s Baptist Health and Memorial Hospital, and FSCJ’s Surgical Technology Workforce Certificate program to train incumbent hospital workers to become surgical technologists.
The first cohort of 12 students took place between October 2016 and October 2017, while a second cohort of 12 Baptist Health and Memorial Hospital incumbent workers began the surgical technology program in November 2017. Through this partnership, 12 hospital workers who currently held positions in various departments at the hospitals — including billing and insurance clerks, floor technicians, and nursing assistants — received hands-on training.
Upon completion, students will earn their certification and can be promoted within their facility to begin earning a higher income, potentially increasing their hourly wages from $10/hour to $18/hour, according to Earn Up’s website.
Among those adult learners, Wirth said Earn Up is also focused on engaging NE Florida’s veteran population. The region has about 3,000 military separations per year, leaving many veterans looking for college and career guidance after the end of their service.
“They are adult learners as well, but they are a unique subset,” Wirth said. “The veteran population isn’t a challenge, it’s an opportunity.”
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