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Robert Trigaux

Does Florida really have the will and willingness to invest in what it takes to be a global player?



Floridagraduationtimes2006 Wake up and good morning. I've just returned from a few days in Orlando where the Florida Chamber of Commerce convened a series of mini-summits to examine Florida's economic future. It is a future that many business leaders are convinced depends heavily on a better state education system, especially in identifying, cultivating and -- if necessary -- subsidizing young people with math and science skills and interests. (Photo: A Florida graduation, St. Petersburg Times files.)

Then all we have to do is figure out how to keep them in Florida with quality jobs that pay well. No problem, right?

This is the constant drumbeat of economic development talk these days:

1) We're not economically competitive where it counts: more sophisticated, 21st century jobs in life sciences, technology, engineering and the like. How do we get there?

2) When young people in Florida apply to college, the smartest often go out of state to places like Harvard and MIT and Duke. We have nothing to match these schools in Florida and will be hard pressed to counter the loss of our "elite" students. But we can still keep plenty of sharp young people here by upgrading the state university system and -- this is important -- properly communicating to high school students that the caliber of Florida universities is improving and opportunities are expanding in this state.

3) At graduation time from college, sharp young minds tends to think less of who will give them a job and more of what cool metro area do they want to live in and find work. Florida business leaders generally concede it's hard to "keep them down on the farm after they've seen Paris." That's an old-style way of saying many young adults are drawn like moths to light bulbs to places like Austin, Denver, New York City, Washington, D.C. because these places are perceived as exciting, challenging, diverse, youth-oriented and offering a depth of job opportunity (and job security) that just does not exist in Florida. Especially now with our appalling unemployment rate.

4) Jobs or brains? We can't make up our minds. Lots of sharp people leave Florida because they can't find good paying, challenging work. Others argue that those jobs would blossom here more often if more top educated people were around to attract that kind of employment.

Well, folks, I'm delighted the Florida Chamber and others are acknowledging the Great Florida Challenge and not just sitting back awaiting the rebound of the state tourism industry. But we still suffer some profound disconnects that separate our talking about our state's challenges while sitting around upscale Disney resort surroundings and finding the will to make the expensive commitments needed to transform Florida at a quicker pace to a state truly identifiable as a global competitor.

It's painful to listen to education leaders and specialists talk about better test scores in Florida students when the reality is school budgets have been slashed from Pre-K through the university level. The average high school teacher this year, thanks to budget cuts, teaches more kids, not fewer -- when smaller class size remains perhaps the single most important factor in improving education. Deans at Florida public universities have been ordered for years to slash budgets, which often means cramming  more students into each classroom and replacing the best (more expensive) teachers with freelance instructors paid piecemeal wages.

Tampa Bay earned some buzz years ago when regional economist-turned-creative-urban-guru Richard Florida challenged the metro area to make itself a more vibrant and interesting community, one more likely to attract and keep creative people working creative jobs. That's happened, a little bit, and kudos to those that made it happen. But we seem to have hit a ceiling in recent times. A fatigue factor has set in, compounded by a nasty recession and a turnover in our community leadership. Creative TampaBay, started in the wake of Dr. Florida's visit to spark more energy between the business and arts worlds here, has of late grown too passive and lacks its former sense of urgency.

At the Florida Chamber summit, all this "We gotta get a lot better, a lot faster" mantra was well received. But not once was the idea that it will take a lot more money committed to education discussed. Not all substantive gains can come from productivity tweaks of stretched school systems. And what of the forecast that the 7 million more people are coming to populate Florida in the next 20 years will be mostly over the age of 60? It means that the future tax base of this state will again be dominated by folks who are here to retire and pay low taxes -- not to reinvent and certainly not to reinvest in a below-par education system that very clearly is Not Ready for Prime Time 21st Century Global Competition. Those are some of the profound challenges ahead.

Here's my column in today's St. Petersburg Times from the Chamber summit.

Florida Chamber CEO Mark Wilson offered up a good image at the summit. You can't boil an ocean. Florida can't do everything. But maybe it can boil one pot and get something brewing for the better in this state.

-- Robert Trigaux, Times Business Columnist

[Last modified: Tuesday, June 1, 2010 11:26am]


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