Thursday, November 15, 2018
Business

Florida says it wants 'jobs, jobs, jobs' but it really needs 'opportunity, opportunity, opportunity'

If you don't know where you are going, any job will get you there. That's the underlying message these days in Florida.

Much to the delight of the elected in Tallahassee, the state's unemployment rate continues to drop. That's thanks to more jobs, but also a worrisome trend of more people dropping out of the workforce.

Within Florida, Tampa Bay ranks high among the top metro areas for creating new jobs.

That's great. As far as it goes.

A huge gulf exists between creating jobs and creating opportunity. And while Florida currently excels at one, it badly trails at the other.

It's a lesson politicians in this state, obsessed with the simplistic jobless rate as a barometer of the health of our economy, still struggle to learn. Young people in Florida may stay for a job but find it hard to build their American Dream here. Many more sense better opportunity elsewhere and will leave for a career.

We need to fix that. We can't become a leader as the nation's third-largest state (as we will become shortly) built on a flimsy foundation of abundant but often mediocre work, weak high school graduation rates, and high crime and poverty.

So let's applaud the Sunshine State's 6.7 percent unemployment rate. But let's focus on the far more important and far less praiseworthy ranking of Florida's "opportunity index."

The state lands at an unimpressive No. 40 in the country, just below Kentucky and above Tennessee, according to a recent annual ranking by the bipartisan group Opportunity Nation. The group's leadership council includes such diverse names as former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Harvard Business School professor Dr. Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Ford Foundation president Luis Ubiñas and Bain Capital managing director Joshua Bekenstein.

The index compiles more than a dozen factors from jobs and economy to education, community health and civic life. Each state and almost every county then gets a letter grade from "A" to "F" on its economic mobility — the opportunity for people to get ahead via hard work, perseverance, education and the belief in a brighter future.

Opportunity Nation says economic mobility is badly lagging in this country. They and others point to low-income kids in nearly a dozen European countries and Canada who have better chances of improving their economic situation than similar children born in the United States.

The weak findings locally reflect why the state ranking is so poor.

In Tampa Bay, the two dominant counties, Hillsborough and Pinellas, received a "C." Hillsborough's measurements closely tracked the state's, though the county suffered a higher rate of violent crime. In Pinellas, high school on-time graduation rates (65.2 percent) lagged behind the state's numbers. And Pinellas, too, lost marks for a higher-than-average rate of violent crime.

To the north, Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties all received grades of "C-." The three counties suffered with more than 19 percent of their youth, ages 16 to 24, as disconnected — neither working nor in school. And all three counties had a relative scarcity of health care providers.

Most Florida counties received similar or even lower grades. The highest grade was a "B-," and only a few counties received even that.

The opportunity index even contrasts two kids — "Jane" born in Hillsborough with a "C" opportunity grade and "John" born in Michigan's Oakland County with a "B" grade — and maps the likelihood of their success in life as they contend with different qualities of education, community safety, affordable housing and household incomes.

John has a distinct advantage in getting ahead over Jane, the index suggests.

Fixating on "jobs, jobs, jobs" may lower the unemployment rate. But alone, it won't raise the opportunity bar in Florida.

Regional economic cheerleader Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn never wastes a speaking opportunity to emphasize how he wants this area to become more attractive to young and talented people. He's eager that his children find the economic opportunities here to be as compelling, or more compelling, than those in competing metro areas like Charlotte or Atlanta.

To be sure, Tampa Bay seems to be making some progress lately.

Well-regarded companies with global brands such as Bristol-Myers Squibb, Time Warner and insurer USAA are choosing the area for major expansions and jobs that promise career opportunities along with decent paychecks.

An ambitious initiative dubbed MediFuture is under way that hopes to establish the Tampa Bay area as one of the major hubs of health care innovation in the country. That spells potential opportunity.

More area schools are embracing STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs and specialty apprenticeships that can expose students to promising job fields. More schools are being "adopted" by private businesses that can at least bring more volunteers and financial support to budget-pressed educational systems.

And a growing regional web of educational and economic development groups are rallying to help support a young but growing number of business startups and entrepreneurial activity. The idea is to encourage talented risk-takers to start — and keep — new companies here.

The hope is these businesses eventually will add new jobs to the economy and even entice other talented entrepreneurs to this area. They also could provide an important job-creation tool to balance Tampa Bay's traditional reliance on taxpayer incentives to recruit companies based elsewhere to relocate or, more likely, expand a portion of their operations to this area.

But all these good intentions need broader and wiser support from the top. Otherwise, Florida will keep wallowing near the bottom of the opportunity pack.

So let's give a conditional cheer for every drop in Florida's unemployment rate. But let's be clear: All the low-paying, dead-end jobs in the world will not transform Florida into a land of opportunity.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at [email protected]

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