They are, perhaps, the two most often repeated laments among Florida businesses and enlightened educators. 1. Florida's economy and educational system is not competitive on the demanding global stage. 2. Too few Florida students are learning enough 21st century skills in "STEM" — the acronym for science, technology, engineering and math — with sufficient rigor and hands-on experience to handle the key jobs businesses are clamoring to fill. Listen to the blunt assessment from Paul Woods, co-founder of international biofuels company Algenol in southwest Florida's Bonita Springs. Woods hires around the world. And Florida students, he says, do not compare with the employees he hires. "I can tell you the state of Florida is not even close to mediocre," he told a conference this past week on the state's work force skills. "I think we have to stop being defensive and take a hard look." Hmm. An honest man.
So, what's preventing Florida from declaring a "state of economic emergency" and instituting well-crafted STEM programs and career academies across the state?
Not one thing. Except for bureaucracy. Inertia. Old thinking. Naysayers. Cynics. Misplaced pride. Lack of funding. Lack of imagination. An absence of leadership. And, to be sure, a profound lack of will.
Other than that, Florida's ready for takeoff.
If I sound frustrated, you better believe it. I spent several eye-opening hours this past week at the Academy of Engineering at East Lake High School in northeast Pinellas County. About 600 students — roughly a quarter of the high school's population — attend the engineering-driven program at East Lake. Students are accepted by lottery, so hundreds who want to attend but are not chosen end up on a waiting list.
This academy tucked within a public high school exists thanks to a few out-of-the-box risk-takers. Ex-businessman Paul Wahnish got the idea years ago to start an engineering academy at East Lake. He won the backing of a school principal with some backbone who thankfully understood risk-taking. Wahnish ultimately funded the academy by creating a nonprofit foundation, without being subject to the ad nauseam slashings of the county's public school budget.
The goal of Wahnish and backers that include former Pasco County School Board member Kathryn Starkey is to spread STEM-focused career academies like East Lake's engineering program statewide.
Easier said than done. Few bureaucracies are as impenetrable and emotional as public education.
That's apparently not stopping STEM programs elsewhere in the country.
The best 208 high schools for STEM include 40 in California and 30 in New York. Florida has eight, ranking the state No. 7 nationwide, according to U.S. News & World Report, which recently unveiled its first ranking of the best high schools for math and science.
None of those eight high schools is in the Tampa Bay area. .) To be fair, many high schools in places like Northern California boast students whose parents work in places like Silicon Valley. That can be quite an advantage.
A statewide "strategic plan" for STEM issued in April lays out how far Florida must come from behind. Its sober assessment was issued by the Florida Center for Research in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, created by the Florida Legislature in 2007 and housed at Florida State University.
"Currently, students in Florida perform below students in many other states and nations on science and mathematics assessments," the plan states. "As students in Florida progress through our public schools from elementary to high school, their performance declines relative to that of their peers in other states and nations."
The report adds:
• Nearly half of the high school graduates entering Florida's community colleges require remediation in mathematics.
• Less than 25 percent of bachelor's degrees awarded through Florida's state university system in 2010 were in STEM fields. Yet the 10 highest-paying careers in Florida are in STEM fields.
• Industry leaders consistently report a shortage of qualified professionals to fill STEM positions.
A STEM summit conference will take place Oct. 25-26 at Tampa's Museum of Science and Industry, also known as MOSI.
Speakers range from executives at companies like Jabil Circuit and the Nielsen Co., both big backers of the Academy of Engineering and STEM, to the Tampa Bay Partnership's Stuart Rogel, Florida University System chancellor Frank Brogan and Workforce Florida CEO Chris Hart. (For more information, visit www.careertechedfoundation.org.)
To paraphrase Woods, the CEO of the Florida firm Algenol: Come on, business and education folks, stop being defensive and take a hard look.
Florida's work force in the making is not ready for prime time.
Robert Trigaux can be reached at [email protected]