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At STEM summit, a call for Florida to raise its competitive bar

TAMPA

One nagging theme emerged at Wednesday's summit meeting dedicated to improving Florida's students and work force for 21st century technology jobs.

Yes, we're making headway encouraging schools and businesses to support students pursuing educations in science, technology, engineering and math — better known as STEM. But so far, it's not enough to build a first-string economy in a global market.

"Students are not challenged enough," Florida House Speaker Designate and Wesley Chapel Republican Will Weatherford told a packed conference room at Tampa's Museum of Science and Industry. "Schools must become more competitive."

"We've set the bar too low today," chided Michael Nastanski, dean of Saint Leo University's college of business in Pasco County. Rather than just teach Florida students to handle today's tech and engineering jobs, he said, let's prepare them to take Florida businesses to the next level.

That belief was echoed, loudly, by Frank Brogan. Lieutenant governor under former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and now chancellor of Florida's state university system, Brogan said every one of the 11 state universities in Florida needs to establish a brand and choose some key areas of expertise that contribute to upgrading the state economy.

Brogan said that thanks to NASA, Florida "owned" the space industry for 50 years. Yet in all those decades, he lamented, no state university developed a reputation as being the school for aerospace and space sciences. Now Florida's lost that space race, and Brogan does not want to see a similar fate in other industries.

The chancellor pointed to biotech as a hot arena, one that Florida's trying, off and on, to claim as one of its core industries. Yet no Florida university has grabbed the biotech brand for itself. Becoming a university with real biotech credentials takes years, Brogan warned.

"This is no way to run a railroad," Brogan told the area's third annual STEM summit. The event was assembled by the nonprofit Career Technical Education Foundation, the brainchild of local STEM advocate Paul Wahnish.

One beauty of this summit was its ability to bring together key educators and leaders from area businesses like MITRE, Bauer, Sypris and (ISC)2 on a topic so critical to Florida's long-term survival.

St. Petersburg's Jabil Circuit, one of the world's largest electronics manufacturers with 130,000 employees in 20 countries, is a big STEM supporter. That's because the company — ever hunting for talent and technology — understands what it takes to compete year after year at a compound 24 percent growth rate.

"Every three or four years, our portfolio of business changes," said Jabil executive vice president of strategic planning Joe McGee. "We have to retrain our people all the time."

Not to mention manage the task of finding, recruiting, training and deploying thousands of new employees worldwide every year.

Jabil's hunt for creative people has no geographic boundaries, McGee said. Where Jabil finds the best and brightest is where it sets up shop.

Will that ever happen again in Florida?

Maybe that's when we can say Florida's STEM efforts make the first string.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com.

At STEM summit, a call for Florida to raise its competitive bar 10/26/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 26, 2011 9:04pm]
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