In a rare moment of collaboration, Pinellas County government and education leaders left their respective silos Thursday morning to meet, mingle and brainstorm about fresh ways to prep young people and the work force for jobs that area businesses expect to create and hope to fill locally in the future.
Better late than never. Tampa Bay's lost 200,000 jobs during this recession. More than 50,000 Pinellas residents still lack employment. And the county's jobless rate actually rose to 10.6 percent in June from 10 percent in May.
As Pinellas leaders were reminded, a regional economic scorecard that regularly ranks Tampa Bay against five similar Southern metro areas (from Jacksonville to Atlanta to Charlotte) finds our area at or near the bottom. We were No. 2 when the scorecard started just five years ago.
Thursday's gathering, held as the day's stock markets began to plummet from global economic worries, won't cure any of these immediate ills. But this meeting could spur county officials, educators and business leaders to break out of their entrenched bureaucracies to find innovative and efficient ways to prepare young people entering the work force with skills businesses actually need. On a larger stage, this gathering could become a first step toward shaping the greater Tampa Bay area into a stronger magnet for expanding and relocating businesses seeking superior workers.
The three-hour event opened with Tampa Bay Partnership CEO Stuart Rogel outlining his economic development group's recent $600,000 "regional blueprint" study that urges this area to focus much of its job efforts on health care and medical devices, high-tech electronics, business and financial services and marine science activities.
With those long-term goals, three Pinellas groups critical to elevating the county's future work force were asked: How can we do a better job preparing people to fill those higher-wage, higher-skill jobs?
Members of the Pinellas County Board of County Commissioners, the Pinellas County School Board and the St. Petersburg College board of trustees intermingled to come up with recommendations. The exercise was held at and facilitated by St. Petersburg College's Collaborative Labs in Largo.
Admittedly, I had higher hopes for more succinct and bolder recommendations to upgrade the Pinellas work force. These are dire times and our economy will surely face even more competition ahead. But this event was a solid start, and there's more to come from it down the road.
Thursday's three mixed teams of county commissioners and education officials mostly called for some very basic ideas. Among them:
Let's communicate to each other more often. Let's keep Pinellas taxes low and its climate business friendly. Let's develop better "business intelligence" about area firms and a database that sheds more light on the types of smaller companies filling Pinellas County's business parks.
"This is not an IBM town," said St. Petersburg College trustee Ken Burke, a CPA and the county's clerk of the circuit court. "But I drive by lots of companies employing 200 or 300 whose parking lots are full each day. And I wonder: Who works there?"
Participating School Board members urged greater flexibility in identifying and guiding students more likely to prosper with special technical training.
Commissioner Karen Seel suggested shaping the county's work force would be smarter if the CEOs of some of the top companies with headquarters here — she specified Paul Reilly of Raymond James Financial and Jabil Circuit's Tim Main — could be recruited to offer their expertise.
By noon, the Pinellas groups acknowledged that as first meetings go, this one had promise — even with miles to go. They agreed, at county Administrator Bob LaSala's urging, to try to follow up this fall.
"We need to keep this alive," LaSala said.
No kidding. St. Petersburg College president Bill Law, whose SPC is a local leader in tailoring college-level training to match area employment needs, set the mood of the meeting by citing regional economist Richard Florida's recent book, The Great Reset. It warns this recession will not end with a return to the status quo, but says new opportunities await those who recognize and respond to that shift.
Here's hoping these Pinellas leaders — and others across Tampa Bay empowered to shape a better work force — take that to heart.
Contact Robert Trigaux at email@example.com.