with David Ruggieri, the President and CEO of Florida Technical College

One of the primary keys to a vibrant economy is a robust and diverse talent pipeline. But that pipeline is not only filled by young people who go straight from high school into college. It is also made up of single parents who realize it is up to them to build a life for themselves and their children or veterans who are wondering how they will reenter the work force after serving their country overseas.  

In the early 1970’s, David Ruggieri, the president and CEO of Florida Technical College, which serves more than 5,000 students on seven campuses in a variety of programs, was discharged from the Air Force in San Diego, California. According to his own account he was looking more for a job than a career, and heard about a teaching opportunity at a trade and technical school.

He candidly admits he didn’t exactly know what a trade school was. But two things astounded him when he arrived at the campus. First, more than 95 percent of the students were veterans and secondly, it was the only school he ever had heard of that operated 24 hours a day, running three shifts.

“I was fascinated that people would be willing to go to school from midnight to six. I had a hard time getting there at 9am,” Ruggieri recalled. “Talking to the students, I discovered most of them had no clue what they were going to do with their lives, now that the Vietnam War was over. They had been drafted right out of high school and had no marketable skills. Most of them were Marines, so they all were coming back with combat experience. I had been in Vietnam, so there was a strong sense of empathy.

“Something happened to me there as I talked to them, heard their stories and saw their hopes and anxiety. I honestly thought, ‘Let me see if I can help out here. I could probably do this for year, it would be like joining the Peace Corp.’ After a year I would feel good about myself I thought…That was over 40 years ago.”

A Profession that’s Purpose Driven

What began for Ruggieri as a temporary job became a passion and a life mission. Since then he has attracted others like him, educational innovators and administrators, who live with a conviction that they are giving opportunity and confidence to the most desirous and the most deserving.

“There is a completely different, sort of infectious realization when you are at a career school that is different from an academic college or university.  Many students are at college because that is what you do after high school.  It is 13th, 14th, 15th grade etc., but a career school is unique and special,” Ruggieri explained.  

“I got out of it a couple of times, my background was in marketing. I worked in radio for a season. However, the satisfaction that came from working with people who really didn’t have a clue, to actually finding a career was like nothing else I’ve ever found.”

Eventually his reputation grew and a publicly held company in the education business, National Systems Corporation approached him and he found their offer intriguing. They were located in Newport Beach, California so it wasn’t a major relocation, and the other side of his career began to emerge as the educational administrator and executive.

“There is no more rewarding or thankless job than teaching depending on your perspective and I try and stay as close to it as I can. What drew me originally were the veterans, what has kept me are the graduations. Whenever I have thought, ‘I need to get a real job,’ I go to a graduation. I look around and see three or four hundred graduates and maybe three thousand people there to celebrate. It hits me that for many of our students this is the first cap and gown they have worn with a real sense of pride and accomplishment. I do that and I think, ‘I’ll do another Peace Corp year!’”

A Students First Approach

Students at Florida Technical CollegeOften the motivation that brings students to Florida Technical College is perhaps 33 percent desire or 33 percent opportunity, but it is also 33 percent fear. “What am I going to do with my life, how am I going to support my family?” FTC turns those fears into an actionable plan, from certificate programs than enable a graduate to get a better job, to a baccalaureate degrees that are the doorway into a new career.

People see their parents and their friends struggling and come to us, because we are able to pay that special attention that often the public educational institutions are unable to give, they are capacity constrained.

Most of their students find FTC online, looking for schools that have programs that interest them and the flexibility they need to pursue an education, while making a living. According to Ruggieri, geography plays a major part. “Our students on average live within ten miles of the campus they attend; we’re not a destination school like Full Sail University. Though school at Universal Studios is a destination school, people relocate here to take our programs in computer animation and now gaming, located there. About 35 percent come from referrals, it isn’t uncommon for friends to go together.”

Being a part of a public company, with 43 campuses helped prepare Ruggieri for his role at FTC. “I have often told staff and faculty that if you put the student first, the rest, including profits, will follow,” he said. His formula is simple: if the students are first, they show up. If they show up, they are more likely to complete, and if they complete, their odds of being successfully placed and being successful where they are placed goes way up accordingly.

The Great Equalizer

Vocational Students at Florida Technical College as seen in i4 Business Magazine“Like when I was young, growing up in the 60’s, a lot kids just get lost. Granted all of us have to take responsibility for ourselves. But I often tell people, ‘Education is the great equalizer.’ Essentially, without an education or a degree a person is at the mercy of whoever might hire them. But with an education you level the playing field, you have as much power as the employer because you have a marketable skill they want and need,” Ruggieri observed.

“All the degree does is give you an opportunity, then the student is on their own,” he added.  FTC places eight out of ten of their graduates, but it is not only engagement in their career that FTC emphasizes. The Kissimmee campus was named to the President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll, multiple times, for “engaging its students, faculty and staff in meaningful service that achieves measurable results in the community.” Only 513 schools, colleges and universities have been named to the Honor Roll, based on volunteer hours and FTC had over 50,000 this past year.

Their school also won the Inter-Faith Award, which only 99 colleges won, and they aren’t a faith-based institution. They are a for profit corporation, owned by Leeds Equity Partners out of New York. However, their students worked with the homeless through church related organizations. Every other Saturday, they feed 400-500 people and provide haircuts for homeless people. “When our students participate in an activity like that, they feel a sense of completion and empathy,” Ruggieri concluded, “Those kinds of things keep me centered.”

Florida Technical College maintains 4,000 students within six campuses located throughout Florida, including Orlando, Lakeland, Deland, Kissimmee, Cutler Bay and Pembroke Pines. Degree programs vary by campus. For more information, visit www.ftccollege.edu


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