In 2006, fresh out of high school and looking for a steady job, Laurence Cotman came to the University of Florida as a custodian in the Health Science Center, where he spent his days cleaning, sweeping and mopping. Cotman said after several years, he was feeling stagnant and considered leaving UF.
“I had pretty much topped out with the pay and it wasn’t challenging me mentally or physically,” Cotman said. “It was just coming in every day doing the same thing and I wasn’t learning anything new.”
Then he discovered the UF Physical Plant Division’s Career Progression Program. The program, launched in 2011 under the direction of Vice President for Business Affairs Curtis Reynolds (who was then assistant vice president of the Physical Plant Division), provides PPD employees with a clear career path guided by a series of classes and certifications, which lead to pay increases and greater responsibility.
The program trains employees in a variety of trades, including HVAC, plumbing, industrial maintenance, carpentry, electrical and more. Participation in the program is mandatory for new PPD hires in the trade areas and voluntary for employees who were at UF when the program began.
Cotman applied and was accepted for the HVAC program and has been happy with his decision. He is currently in the level three course, out of four possible levels.
“The good thing about HVAC is you’re kind of touching everybody else’s field,” Cotman said. “You’ve got to know how to do a little bit of electrical because you’ve got electrical going to the unit. You’ve got to know how to run pipes because of the tubing, the PVC pipes, so that’s plumbing. So you’re kind of well-rounded as an HVAC technician.”
The Career Progression Program not only benefits PPD employees, but it also serves the University of Florida and its faculty and staff, said Career Progression Program Coordinator Sarah Hanson.
“It allows (PPD) employees opportunities to enhance their skills and promote within their trade where there may not have been opportunities before,” Hanson said, while benefits to the university include increased productivity, faster response time to work requests and the ability to attract high-quality candidates and see less turnover.
While Cotman began the program with an entry-level classification, others who might already have years of experience in a trade may test out of the classes to progress through the program, like Duane Gregory.
Gregory spent 25 years as an HVAC technician before joining UF in 2011. He took a pay cut to work at UF, but the burgeoning Career Progression Program gave him hope that his decision would eventually pay off – and it did.
Gregory has tested out of the HVAC and Industrial Maintenance Career Progression tracks and is a certified instructor for both courses. He even taught Cotman.
“The program helps accelerate the learning curve for a trade because if you do a trade with just experience only, you’re looking at 10 to 15 years to really understand the application,” Gregory said. “It’s best when you are working in the field and taking classes at the same time. I think that is by far where you can max out your potential.”
Hanson said UF’s Career Progression Program model has gotten attention from other UF units like the Housing and Residence Education, as well as from outside UF.
“A lot of universities have reached out to us since we’ve started,” Hanson said. “A lot of businesses have training programs, but as far as a university maintenance department starting their own trade school, it is unique.”
Hanson said the long-term goal for the Career Progression Program (which also partners with Santa Fe College) is to become a trade school that would be open to not just UF but to the community and other businesses.
For Cotman, he hopes to see the program continue to grow and thrive.
“I would like for the program to keep going for the younger people that come out here and don’t know what direction they want to go and what they want to do, because I was one of those young guys,” Cotman said. “I would like to see it go further for the future, for the next generation, so they can take advantage of what’s out here at UF.”