The last 18 months have been an economic roller coaster for Southwest Florida. One would be hard-pressed to find any economist or soothsayer who predicted the ups and downs experienced in this region (or any region). The sudden eruption of COVID-19 and the quarantines that followed caused an equally unexpected shock to the local economy, especially the tourism, customer service and hospitality sectors. At the same time, the health care sector was stressed by a surge in demand as COVID-19 cases exploded.
After several months of high unemployment and stagnant economic growth, the “recovery” upswing has been as dramatic as the pandemic decline. Many businesses have been challenged to bring workers back, real estate sales and prices have accelerated, building materials are more expensive—if available—and so on. Several of the region’s high-tech employers (e.g., Arthrex, NeoGenomics, Gartner, etc.) appear to have largely weathered the storm to date. Agriculture, it seems, has been among the most stable sectors through the pandemic.
At FGCU, we felt the effects of the change in economic winds much like other key community participants. Certainly, the abrupt shutdown of the hospitality industry had adverse impacts on our students’ ability to find part-time employment. Longer-term career prospects for our graduates have since improved substantially. Moreover, FGCU’s contribution to a more diversified regional economy has helped Southwest Florida weather this pandemic and promoted resilience.
While adjusting to unforeseen circumstances, FGCU has protected all jobs and indeed created economic activity and employment as major facilities construction projects continued. However, in virtually all quarters, things remain uncertain.
Among many longer-term economic impacts FGCU seeks to make are increasing the percentage of the workforce with degrees and improving workforce productivity through specialized certificate (microcredential) programs.
Obviously, in the first case, the number of traditional graduates and their pace to completion continues to increase. But two recently launched programs intend to provide degree completion for those who dropped out or stopped out: “FGCU Complete” offers flexible options for anyone with college credit to complete a degree, and “Return to the Nest” recruits former FGCU students who left without a degree.
In the second case, several public-private partnerships have led to specialized credentials for both FGCU students and those already in the workplace. And, of course, the FGCU Entrepreneurship graduates are launching new enterprises locally while creating jobs and diversifying the larger economy.
The pandemic has exposed some “soft spots” in the economy of Southwest Florida. A positive consequence of coping with and laboring to recover from it is a renewed commitment to building a more robust and resilient economy. Hopefully, this pandemic will pass, but future economic shocks will certainly occur. Along with other key players, FGCU fully intends to be a proactive partner in driving growth, fostering equity and stimulating opportunities.
Michael V. Martin, Ph.D., is the president of Florida Gulf Coast University.