Graham Brink: Florida is in a must-win fight for talented workers

Florida as seen from NASA's Goodard Space Flight Center in 2010. (NASA)
Florida as seen from NASA's Goodard Space Flight Center in 2010. (NASA)
Published June 13, 2018

TAMPA — Florida's economic future hinges on talent — nurturing and retaining the homegrown kind and attracting it from other places.

As the state grows, we need more entrepreneurs, engineers, doctors and good teachers.

We also must be prepared to grab a big share of the occupations that don't exist yet, the ones that right now are no more than an itch in the back of some genius' mind. Think how personal computers or mobile phones changed the world, and the workforce. But the next transformation — some would call it disruption — will likely happen even faster.

The competition to fill those openings with high-quality workers goes beyond Georgia or Texas or Michigan. Florida is in a race against the rest of the world.

Quick read:Here are Florida's most affordable cities for housing

China would be happy to grab a chunk of the state's aerospace industry. Florida is big on biotech, but so is India, Singapore and South Korea. Want to keep growing oranges and strawberries? We'd better have enough talented people around to innovate faster than Brazil and Mexico.

Don't believe me?

Mark Wilson, president and CEO of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, thinks talent is "the most important thing for Florida's future."

"The truth is that talent has already replaced the tax incentive as the No. 1 most important tool in the economic" development toolkit, Wilson said Tuesday at the Chamber's Learners to Earners Workforce Summit in Tampa.

As evidence, he pointed to parts of California and Seattle, not exactly low-cost havens, that nonetheless are rich in talent.

Related:Construction in Tampa Bay is booming, right? Actually it's a bit of a laggard.

Wilson estimated that Florida will need to fill about 3.7 million jobs by 2030, 2 million to replace retirees and 1.7 million to keep up with the state's growing population. He added that older generations often thought about their careers in terms of which companies they aspired to join. Millennials emphasize location, in particular vibrant cities that offer work-life balance such as Austin, Boston and Denver.

Florida needs some cities on that list, both to attract outside talent and to keep our native high-achievers. Too often we cultivate talent in our universities, colleges and trade schools only to see it flee to other states.

More young people need to "find their piece of the American dream without having to leave Florida," Adam Putnam, the agriculture commissioner and Republican candidate for governor, told the audience at the Chamber event.

Related:What else did Adam Putnam have to say at the summit?

Florida has found it hard to shake some old perceptions. The state's K-12 schools are no longer at the bottom of the rankings and the economy is more than just agriculture, tourism and an endless stream of retirees.

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But sometimes perception is reality. Florida's cities don't pay as well for many of the coveted jobs in Boston, Atlanta or Seattle. Sometimes not even as well as Nashville or Charlotte. St. Petersburg doesn't have the public transit of Portland and Tampa isn't as walkable as Minneapolis, two priorities for young talent. And the state isn't the bargain that it once was. Housing costs, especially including insurance and property taxes, have crept up.

None of this is to say Florida can't compete, but we must strive to create an educated, nimble and diverse workforce.

This talent competition is too important to lose.

Contact Graham Brink at Follow @GrahamBrink.