At 47-years-old, Franklin Perez does not mind being in a classroom setting. University of Central Florida instructors are helping this hard-working father and warehouse manager brush up on English. Despite his lack of proficiency, for the last 15 years, he’s worked at the Rosen Centre Hotel along International Drive. Originally from Dominican Republic, Perez’s limited language has created some difficulties for him to communicate at a professional and on a personal level.

Perez is tackling this challenge head-on and improving his mastery of the English language through EPIC (English Program for workers in the International Drive Corridor), a pilot program spear headed by Orange County Government. UCF Global was selected as the preferred partner to provide instruction for the program.

“As the international hub for the University of Central Florida, we at UCF Global align our mission to the university’s of unleashing potential by aspiring to be a campus without boundaries with a commitment to the development of an educated citizenry, attention to the talent needs in our region and state, and integration of high impact practices that prepare learners for the workforce of the future,” says Jennifer Haddad, program director for UCF Global Engagement.

When Rosen Hotels & Resorts offered the class to Perez and his co-workers, he jumped at the chance to participate and has now completed the first phase, an eight-week cycle. Perez says he has already increased his ability to communicate by 25%. Hungry to continue expanding his vocabulary, Perez has now begun the second phase of EPIC, signing up for another eight weeks.

With low unemployment rates, and visitors returning to the community without COVID-19 restrictions, employers in the International Drive corridor are challenged to address talent shortages. Orange County’s I-Drive Community Redevelopment Act (CRA) Advisory Group recommended an investment in English language instruction to support professional growth and retention. In September 2022 using CRA funding, Orange County Government launched EPIC, tailored to the needs of working adults in the I-Drive corridor and taught by educators from UCF Global.

Nearly 64% of the participants in this pilot program indicated better work opportunities as their main interest in the program, according to Haddad.

“UCF is dedicated to promoting broad-based prosperity throughout our community, and we’re pleased to help participants increase their earning potential while giving employers an incentive that can help to retain their employees,” Haddad says. “As a result, we know that the language instruction is a step toward the goal of supporting higher earning potential for workers and value-added retention for employers.”

Through this unique model, resort properties within the International Drive CRA were invited to extend the opportunity to participate in three cycles of ESOL classes to their employees. Rosen Hotels & Resorts accepted the offer and nearly 60 employees signed up, with some 100 more expressing interest. For their part, Rosen Hotels & Resorts is providing space for the classes and paying their employees to attend as part of their workday. The classes are being held twice a week for two hours.

“It is rewarding to see these lifelong learners seeking to improve their ability to communicate and their eagerness to pursue professional growth in the heart of our tourism corridor,” says Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings.

Working with Rosen Hotels & Resorts is nothing new for UCF as its Rosen College of Hospitality Management was made possible by the businessman and philanthropist Harris Rosen, who donated the land and a major financial gift to help create it. This pilot program further supports the long-standing relationship UCF has with Rosen Hotels & Resorts.

“I love my associates,” says Rosen, president and COO of Rosen Hotels & Resorts.  “And anything that I can do to help them improve their lives, whether it be learning a second language or a new skill, I will enthusiastically support.”

This week, the second of three phases of instruction has begun allowing students from the first phase to continue and inviting new students to begin. Rosen Hotels & Resorts will extend the same benefits to the students by providing space and paying them to attend. UCF Global has set a capacity of 75 students so the program has room to grow as more resort employees show interest, as well as to evolve to continue meeting upskill demands for the area’s workforce.

UCF is collecting data on participant aspirations and challenges, and employer operational challenges, which will help the county design and implement a sustainable ESOL program once the EPIC pilot is complete.

As for expansion options, the opportunity to make this program available to employees at other resort properties within the International Drive CRA area is still available. Course data compiled by UCF Global indicates a need for ESOL classes, as well as for desired components that make the opportunity accessible and attainable for the workers.

“We would love to see additional hotels and resort properties offer these classes to their employees, and we hope more will get involved,” Demings says. “These kinds of public-private partnerships strengthen our community as a whole and can be valuable in providing upskill opportunities to our region’s talent force.”

After the first phase, Perez says his reading and pronunciation have improved significantly. He is dedicated to keep learning, mainly for his four young daughters, they are his motivation to keep striving for more.

“I want to be prepared and I want to grow,” he says. “I am delighted with this program and thankful for the patience that the UCF instructors have offered us.”

He, too, is hopeful the collaboration will expand and include more employers down the line, so that others can benefit just as much he says he has.