Tampa Bay way behind other cities when it comes to talent

A recent comparison to 19 other metro areas paints a challenging picture for Tampa Bay.
Tampa skyline.
Tampa skyline.
Published December 14 2018
Updated December 14 2018

Oh, the power of talented workforces.

They attract companies and turn entrepreneurs’ dreams into realities. They pump life into cities and smooth over economic deficiencies.

Unfortunately, talent hasn’t been the Tampa Bay area's strong suit. We struggle to attract and nourish it.

No doubt, we’ve made gains, long ago shedding the reputation of being God’s waiting room. We aren’t just a place outsiders want to visit for a week of sunshine and roller coasters. Fortune 500 companies were born here. One — The Mosaic Co. — decided earlier this year to move its headquarters here.

But measuring against our previous selves can lead to a lot of pats on the back, while the competition eats our lunch. It’s a given that we should be improving. The real test is by how much.

Which leads me to the latest Regional Competitiveness Report. The breakdown uses more than 50 measures to compare Tampa Bay to 19 similar metro areas, everything from food insecurity to pavement conditions to the number of patents per 10,000 residents.

The provocative report has a section just on talent. What leaps out? Tampa Bay couldn’t break the top 10 in any of the 12 talent indicators. Not one. It wasn’t even close in most of them.

Not in high school graduation rates. Not in associate’s or bachelor’s degrees. Not in how many working age people have a job or are looking for one.

The report kindly refers to these as “cracks” in our economic foundation. I suppose the Grand Canyon is a crack of sorts.

TAMPA BAY VERSUS THE COMPETITION: It's not a pretty sight.

The challenges we face in attracting talent showed up in other parts of the report, like migration, demographics and affordability. Cities, for instance, are competing for the best and brightest of the millennial generation — young people who will start companies, fill engineering jobs, become doctors, install our electrical systems, put down roots, buy houses, be the leaders of tomorrow, if they aren’t already leaders today.

Want to dissuade millennials? Ignore your transit system and price them out with high housing costs compared to how much they get paid. Right there, that’s two strikes against us.

Tampa Bay ranked last among the 20 cities in transit ridership, thanks to our anemic system. We didn’t do much better in affordability, ranking in the bottom quarter when housing and transportation costs were compared to average incomes.

Seattle ranked third in affordability, despite sky-high housing prices. How? Workers in that city had the highest incomes, just under $75,000.

Yes, Seattle has Amazon, Microsoft and tens of thousands of Boeing workers. All those programmers, engineers and executives might skew the overall average, but what a good problem to have. Besides, the report shows that the Emerald City also pays its service-sector workers almost $49,000, more than any of the cities and almost twice what we pay here.

The talent category stood out to Rick Homans, too. He’s the CEO of the Tampa Bay Partnership, which authored the report in collaboration with United Way Suncoast and the Community Foundation of Tampa Bay. There is an “obvious disconnect” between what employers need and how we are training potential employees, he told me. He also referred to our approach to building talent as “fragmented.”

But the data gives us the building blocks for progress, he said. It reveals opportunities, the levers to pull so we can be more competitive with our peer cities. Improving transit options, for instance, can help our poverty ranking by making more jobs accessible to more people. Retaining more college grads can push down the unemployment rate, in good times and bad.

He also sees potential in what some of our peer cities are doing. Many cities focus on luring companies, so that workers will follow. Dallas-Fort Worth, the report points out, has focused more on attracting skilled workers so that companies will follow.

“They’ve really turned that model on its head,” he said.

The next step is to dig deeper into the data to formulate solutions, a plan that will provide the most impact. Nothing knee-jerk. A “comprehensive approach,” he called it.

In compiling the report, Homans noticed that the other cities rarely use Tampa Bay as a benchmark. We don’t appear in their reports. Homans would like to change that. We should aspire to be a place other cities want to emulate, he said.

A good start, for sure.

Talent: How we stack up

When compared to 19 similar metro areas in the latest Regional Competitiveness Report, Tampa Bay didn't fare well on 12 measures of talent — who's working now and how does the pipeline look. The area did not rank higher than 11th in any of the categories.

Measure | Ranked No. 1 | Tampa Bay’s rank

Share of 3- and 4-year-olds in school | Miami | 13th

High school graduation rate | Austin | 15th

High school graduation rate: economically disadvantaged | Austin | 15th

Share of 16- to 24-year-olds neither employed or in school | Raleigh-Durham | 17th

Academic/technical certificates per 10,000 residents | Phoenix | 11th

Associate’s degrees or higher | Raleigh-Durham | 19th

Bachelor’s degree or higher | Raleigh-Durham | 19th

Graduate or professional degree | Baltimore | 19th

Residents 25- to 34-year-olds ith a bachelor’s degree or higher | Raleigh-Durham | 19th

Labor force participation rate ages 25 to 64 | Minneapolis-St. Paul | 20th (last)

Associate’s degree production/10,000 residents | Phoenix | 15th

STEM* degree production/10,000 residents | Raleigh-Durham 12th

*Science, technology, engineering or math

Contact Graham Brink at [email protected] Follow @GrahamBrink.

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