SWFL’s business leaders can use a change of perspective

Guest Commentary

Posted 4/24/23

There’s a very well-kept secret in Southwest Florida. In fact, it’s a secret that is probably too well-kept.

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SWFL’s business leaders can use a change of perspective

Guest Commentary


Brian Rist
Brian Rist
There’s a very well-kept secret in Southwest Florida. In fact, it’s a secret that is probably too well-kept.

For over 60 years, Florida SouthWestern State College (FSW) has been an integral part of our community, and the work that FSW is doing now is far different from the Edison Community College we all remember. The challenge is that many in our community haven’t been told the secret that would change their perspective of FSW.

So, why does the Rist Family Foundation support FSW? Why should you support FSW?

My wife, Kim, and I have been in business in Southwest Florida for almost 30 years, and the biggest issue we’ve seen Southwest Florida businesses experience is finding well-trained employees.

In order for businesses to succeed, they need to grow, and in order to grow, they need more educated and talented people. When our high school students leave town to attend college elsewhere, most of the time, they leave for good, and Southwest Florida loses that local talent.

Training locally gives students the opportunity to learn about problems and needs unique to Southwest Florida. FSW’s programs are built to meet these specific needs. FSW’s faculty and leadership mingle with the business community, allowing us to discuss the skills we are looking for so they can build the training programs our local workforce needs.

There are a lot of programs at FSW that most people in Southwest Florida just don’t know about, and new programs are being developed all the time to adapt to what’s going on in our region.

It’s common knowledge that our healthcare industry is in trouble because we can’t find enough healthcare professionals, and we’ve all seen what can happen when we have a lack of healthcare professionals.

During the midst of the pandemic, we all became alarmingly aware of an acute shortage of respiratory therapists in our region, and often, the demands and needs of many of us could not be addressed. This was further complicated by the lack of certified programs to train these therapists locally.

FSW has always had a strong commitment to healthcare. When Kim and I learned of FSW’s Respiratory Care program, we knew we had to get involved, and we were very encouraged by what we saw. Students were graduating from FSW’s program and going directly to work in our local hospitals, some even receiving life-changing starting bonuses. But the program was small, and we committed to help it grow to serve more students with more technology and resources.

Additionally, there wasn’t anywhere in Southwest Florida that was teaching cybersecurity, and businesses were struggling to find employees that were trained in this field. After seeing the success FSW was having with the Rist Institute for Respiratory Therapy and watching the excitement and life-changing experiences of those students, the Rist Family Foundation wanted to get more involved. Once we learned FSW was considering starting a cybersecurity program, we committed to support that as well, and the Rist Cyber Institute was established.

Now, Southwest Florida students can build their careers and become part of a rapidly growing field right here in their own backyard while filling a need for Southwest Florida industries.

These days, college students often graduate with so much debt, they can’t afford to buy houses or to even use the degree they worked so hard to earn. FSW makes attending college accessible and affordable for so many students by providing real world skills at an economical cost. In fact, 75% of FSW students graduate debt free!

As a philanthropic agency, the Rist Family Foundation looks for a rate of return in action and results. We want to see that our money is supporting inspirational faculty, innovative leadership, applicable programs, open minds and open conversations. This is exactly what’s happening at FSW.

I encourage all of you to change your perspective of FSW. It is no longer just a local community college. It is the key to business growth and economic development in Southwest Florida.

Brian Rist is the former Executive Chairman of The Smart Companies, of which Storm Smart is the largest subsidiary.

SouthWestern State College