Hernando County residents include significantly fewer college graduates than their counterparts across the state and nation. So much so that earlier this year the county's industrial recruiter proposed to make greater academic opportunities part of Hernando's future economic engine.
So it is disconcerting now to hear the chairman of the Hernando County Commission and the city of Brooksville's volunteer economic development ambassador downplay the significance of higher education. The reason? They were defending Mike McHugh, the guy who devised the plan but lacks the academic requirements for the job title he holds.
McHugh, economic development manager, and budget manager George Zoettlein both came under the microscope this week as Hernando County Administrator David Hamilton followed a consultant's recommendation and proposed to cut the pair's salaries by a combined $27,000. An ongoing administrative reorganization left both managers with fewer responsibilities. McHugh also was pinpointed because he does not meet the minimum education level for the job.
The consultant's plan also proposed to raise the wages of two directors who have taken on broader job descriptions. Commissioners didn't bite, in part, because some said they didn't want to escalate salaries even though the net effect of the four changes was a $9,200 savings to the payroll. They told Hamilton to come back in January with other options.
In reality, commissioners punted because a majority were uncomfortable in their own role as managers and failed in their initial attempt to set pay scales that more accurately correspond with education, experience and job duties.
Part of the public discussion, however, focused on McHugh's resume (which does not include a bachelor's degree) and performance (near universal compliments). Brooksville's volunteer ambassador Dennis Wilfong, who said he holds a doctorate, and commission Chairman John Druzbick, who said he never completed community college, both offered that academic credentials are a secondary consideration to real-life accomplishments.
Their sentiments are based on personal experience, but nonetheless reflect a skewed perception that could be detrimental to the county's long-term economic development if others shared their view.
Consider: The number of Hernando adults enrolled in college is one-third lower than the state and U.S. averages. Less than one in 11 of the county's adults holds a bachelor's degree and less than 5 percent completed post-graduate work. Both statistics pale compared to state and national averages.
It's why McHugh this year suggested the county set a long-term goal of acquiring land to partner with a four-year university to enhance the higher education of the county's workforce. McHugh pointed to a Polk County model where the University of South Florida plans to open USF Polytechnic on a campus in northeast Lakeland.
"It's a tremendously important piece of economic development," Druzbick said then.
Indeed. Just not important enough to formally tie county salaries to sheepskins.
The county is seeking to lower a jobless rate above 15 percent and to diversify its economy from its historically heavy reliance on the home-building industry and low-wage service jobs. To do so, Druzbick and others should put a premium on higher education, not disregard it as an irrelevant extra.