In filling IT jobs for clients, John Holton used to only consider applicants with college degrees.
Not any more. Employers can't be that choosy.
"More companies are leaning off the degree requirement," said Holton, vice president with Tampa IT staffing company Rita Technology Services. "I'm just not seeing a lot of computer science grads coming out."
It has been a common refrain from bay area employers, be it in manufacturing, high-tech or other fields: It's hard to find workers with the right training and educational background, despite the persistently high unemployment rate.
A report released today by the Brookings Institution drilled the point home.
Tampa Bay came in a dismal 88th out of the 100 largest metro areas for matching education levels with the education requirements for current job openings. Lakeland-Winter Haven was last.
Madison, Wis., ranked No. 1, followed by Honolulu, Provo-Orem, Utah, and Raleigh-Cary, N.C.
Brookings routinely compares metro areas by various economic gauges. This was the first time it analyzed the educational requirements for new jobs (based on job postings) compared to education levels (based on U.S. Census data).
Its research showed that overall, job openings require more education than the average worker possesses. Across all metro areas, 43 percent of job openings typically require at least a bachelor's degree, but just 32 percent of adults have earned one.
In the Tampa Bay area, nearly 42 percent of job openings posted in January and February called for a bachelor's degree or higher. Only about 26 percent of adults in this region have at least a bachelor's degree. The number drops to 17.7 percent among the unemployed.
Tampa Bay has long recognized an educational gap between job supply and demand. The issue prompted the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp. earlier this year to launch a "tech skills gap project."
In the past couple months, the corporation has shipped surveys to hundreds of business, held more than 50 face-to-face interviews and worked with focus groups to "verify and triangulate" the problem, said Rick Homans, CEO of the economic development corporation.
Patricia Gehant, who heads the gap project, said the group has identified an immediate need for more programmers, in particular, and a mushrooming need for more business analysts, data miners and computer engineers.
She's working to help universities and the private sector connect more directly through mentoring and experimental labs.
"What we're also looking at with education is … getting the psychology student or the liberal arts student to consider a double major in, say, business analytics," she said. "They're both connected with logic and critical thinking skills."
The timing of the Brookings report might make Tampa Bay's economic development leaders cringe. They've gone to great lengths to showcase the strength of the area's workforce to a host of visiting CEOs and other dignitaries in Tampa this week for the Republican National Convention. The Tampa Bay Partnership is highlighting positive attributes in a live, hosted Internet show airing throughout convention week, called Front Row Tampa Bay.
In June, at the outset of the tech skills gap project, local leaders said they did not believe the gap was necessarily worse here than other parts of the country. With the convention fast approaching, Homans acknowledged "we are afraid to broadcast the message that there is a gap (of tech skills) and some companies have trouble finding the right talent."
"At the same time," he added, "unless this gets addressed as a critical issue, key institutions in the community will not put this at the top of the list to address."
Tampa Bay's unemployment rate has fallen from its recessionary peak of 12.5 percent in early 2010 to as low as 8.6 percent before bouncing back up to 9.4 percent. To be considered a healthy economy, the jobless rate would have to drop to 6 percent or below.
The bay area's economy was particularly hard hit because it was an epicenter of the housing bust.
Economists have projected that a cyclical uptick in housing will help the region climb out of its doldrums. But the results of the Brookings survey are troubling because they point to long-term, structural problems for adding jobs once the economy is fully engaged.
"Narrowing the education gap is particularly important for improving the long-term health of metropolitan economies," said Jonathan Rothwell, senior research associate and report author. "Metro areas with wide education gaps have higher unemployment, but metro areas with narrow education gaps have lower unemployment, more job creation, and more job openings."
Rothwell said he couldn't explain why some Florida metros, particularly Lakeland and to a lesser degree Tampa Bay, fared worse than the rest of the country. But he noted many of the strongest metro areas had a combination of two things: a strong university system and an innovative business climate that could offer jobs to graduates, keeping them from moving away.
Jeff Harrington can be reached at (727) 893-8242 or firstname.lastname@example.org.