To create a bridge spanning the entire 182-mile distance between Sarasota and Gainesville would be quite the feat of engineering, but leaders at the University of Florida and on the Gulf Coast over the past two years have tunneled a talent pipeline between the communities that could transform the state’s largest educational institution and the business opportunities in this region. The university, which already operates an agriculture office and a satellite architecture program here, plans this fall to offer the first classes through its new Innovation Station, the inaugural extension for the Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering. The programming could offer an affordable way into a high-demand occupation for students living in the region, but more importantly could stave off the loss of well-trained talent from the Sunshine State.

Cammy Abernathy, dean of the College of Engineering, expects Sarasota to be a good location for the extension campus because it has a climate that will nurture industry. There will eventually be 50 to 60 students doing internships and co-ops arranged through the Innovation Station, she predicts, noting that greater involvement by the university in K–12 education will drive more students toward engineering fields. “This is a very holistic approach,” she says.

Local Leadership

Teri A. Hansen, CEO for the Charles and Margery Barancik Foundation, hardly chose a low-ambition path, but she wonders if a different educational background would have set her in a different direction. “When I went to school, I had no interest in engineering in large part thanks to the way it was taught at the time,” she says. “Today, I would be more interested thanks to the exciting work being done in our schools.” Having the Innovation Station here should boost education from kindergarten upward, she predicts. That’s part of why the foundation she heads has contributed a $980,000 grant to open the facility here.

And the Barancik Foundation isn’t the only excited body. When it comes to high-profile corporations headquartered in Southwest Florida, Sun Hydraulics has always stood tall among giants. A public corporation manufacturing high-tech equipment from a facility in Sarasota, the firm remains a leader in the tech sector garnering international recognition. Allen Carlson for the last 16 years led the Sarasota company before announcing his retirement last September, and this spring he quickly announced that the engineering field here would not feel his absence for long. The University of Florida announced Carlson would be the first director of the Innovation Station. The gig may not be much of a retirement, but it gives Carlson the chance to boost an industry near to his heart in the Sarasota-Bradenton area. “When this came along, I felt my background would really help make this successful,” Carlson says. “It lined up with my interests. It became a natural fit for what I like to do and what they need to do.”

University of Florida President Kent Fuchs told technology executives in Sarasota at an event in March that a planned Innovation Station would funnel engineering majors and graduates into internships and jobs throughout the state and make Florida more competitive in keeping the jobs of tomorrow. The extension campus will be the first of six to eight similar programs in Florida and was sold as a major about-face for the university and this community. “So many times over the past year, I have seen students graduate from the University of Florida and leave for Atlanta or the West Coast,” Fuchs says. “This is critical for the community.”

The Economic Development Corporation of Sarasota County took a lead role through 18 months of negotiations to bring the inaugural UF extension to this community, which culminated in early March with the approval of $1 million in economic incentives by Sarasota County, the $980,0000 from the Barancik Foundation and an additional $63,000 grant by the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, along with $1 million provided by the university itself. Mark Huey, EDC president, called the arrival of the station a “game-changer” for the region. “I feel more energized and optimistic about the future than ever,” he says. The presence of the campus here, according to Huey, will help not just companies here today but any that consider locating on the Gulf Coast in the future, and there will likely be more of those now that programs will be in place not only training engineers of tomorrow but allowing those working today to continue education.

At a special luncheon hosted by the Economic Development Corporation of Sarasota County, details of the effort were presented to community leaders and investors. Technology CEOs in the region celebrated the deal, which they say will help local companies recruit talent from the strongest engineering program in the state of Florida. “We already naturally pull engineers from UF,” says Trey Lauderdale, CEO for Voalte and a UF graduate who in 2004 earned his bachelor’s in Industrial Engineering before earning a master of science and engineering from the university’s Warrington College of Business. Among other benefits, Lauderdale says having an extension campus in Sarasota will raise the visibility of local companies like Voalte among engineering students and provide the opportunity for students to get internships and jobs at local companies instead of hunting for work out of state. Carlson spoke at that event as well, weeks before he was tapped as director. Carlson had been engaged in talks about the education effort over the entire negotiation process.

Fuchs says the Sarasota program will only be the first major outreach of the College of Engineering. UF’s land grant programs, historically used to open extension centers for the Agriculture program, will be used in coming years for other colleges that can enhance economic development in the state of Florida.

Getting Ready for Class

UF has yet to find a site for Carlson and administrative staff to headquarter, but plans are in place to start offering classes in Fall 2017 at State College of Florida, Manatee-Sarasota’s campus in Venice. The top priority for the school, according to Carlson, will be increasing the number of trained engineers in the region and the quality of education they receive. While a part of a higher education institution, Carlson says there will be a strong focus on improving engineering classes for middle and high school students in the Sarasota area. Carlson, both during his time as CEO of Sun Hydraulics and since his retirement, has been involved in education programs like Talent4Tomorrow and Junior Achievement. The high-quality grade schools here make it the perfect place to have an extension of an engineering college, he says. “Whether they are at Pine View or Riverview or Booker or Sarasota High, there is a pool of talented kids that have the ability to go to engineering school and would if they knew a little more about it,” he says. By offering classes for students before they enroll at UF, it also provides a gateway to higher education at an affordable cost.

Before the major community announcement was made at the Hyatt, a smaller press conference was held in March at the HuB, where startup business owners seek out trained engineers. The announcement also comes just months after the unveiling of the Consortium of Colleges on the Creative Coast (C4), a cooperative effort of major education institutions including New College of Florida, Ringling College of Art and Design, State College of Florida Manatee-Sarasota and University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee, as well as St. Petersburg-based Eckerd College and the Florida State University satellite programs in Sarasota. C4 coordinator Laurey Stryker said the growing number of UF facilities in Sarasota plays in perfectly with the mission of C4 to improve higher education in the region.

And Carlson notes that for all the education offerings of the rest of the consortium schools, one gap in the curriculum that lingered was engineering. Programs already exist for marine science, computer animation, nursing and numerous other career-oriented subjects, but nationally, business leaders predict engineers will be among the most in-demand tracks for students in the future, and the field also remains one where other countries hire American-trained students to leave the United States for work. Carlson has no doubt jobs will be available to anyone who takes advantage of the resources to be offered by the Innovation Station. “We have so many startup companies, but they are crying for more engineers,” he says.