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Trigaux: What's our weakest link? To compete as a region, first fix our talent gap

Tampa Bay Partnership chair Rhea Law, head of the Florida offices of the Buchanan Ingersoll and Rooney law firm, believes coalitions will emerge to help improve weak spots in the Tampa Bay community in the wake of a new analysis tracking how the region is doing compared to other metro areas. Left in photo, Tampa Bay Partnership CEO Rick Homans says the idea to be competitive is critical -- "not in some silo, but to see how we are doing relative to other markets." [CHRIS URSO | Times]
Published Nov. 10, 2017

We are about to learn where Tampa Bay stands versus its peers, so perhaps we finally can better focus on — and fix — what needs the most attention to become more competitive.

A sweeping set of regional indicators that compares Tampa Bay's performance to 19 other metro areas shows we rank high in job growth, the pace of people moving here and even less driving congestion than other places. But we land among the worst in possessing the workforce talent needed to support higher-wage, higher-skilled work.

"It is important for people to understand how we are really doing," says Tampa Bay Partnership CEO Rick Homans, whose group is behind the new indicators. "The idea to be competitive is critical, not in some silo, but to see how we are doing relative to other markets. If you know what you're trying to become and develop strategies to get there, you will get there a whole lot faster than if you are just flying blind."

The findings are captured in the first-ever "Regional Competitiveness Report" to be unveiled Nov. 14. Over time, this report is designed to track the ups and downs of all 20 metros based on more than 52 indicators ranging from infrastructure and innovation to how well each location serves its citizens.

Bottom line? We'll know more quickly if Tampa Bay's gaining or losing ground.

RELATED COVERAGE: At last, Tampa Bay embraces one set of indicators to gauge its future course.

Every tracked metro has strengths and weaknesses. Seattle, Denver and Dallas-Fort Worth rock in economic vitality, and Tampa Bay's not far behind. Raleigh-Durham and Austin come up as talent powerhouses while Tampa Bay — along with South Florida, Jacksonville and Orlando — falls near the bottom. In most of the measures, Tampa Bay ends up in the middle, neither leading nor lagging.

This report is just an initial snapshot. It aims to capture on an ongoing basis where Tampa Bay stands relative to metros of similar size — those, like Tampa Bay, that aspire to become larger, stronger and, in the widest sense, more prosperous.

The report is the first step of a collaborative, yearlong effort by the Tampa Bay Partnership with input from nearly 90 organizations representing a broad swath of this region. Area leaders hope Tampa Bay will be empowered by one single set of indicators to tackle regional weaknesses that can hinder this metro area's the ability to attract new businesses, better jobs, more innovative startups, a better educated population and broader opportunities for all.

Homans notes how the decision to relocate USF's medical school to downtown Tampa from the main campus generated a quick uptick in applications. "Things in this world can happen quickly if you make the right moves," he says.

"If the data can help nudge organizations into action, that's what we want it to do," says Dave Sobush, the Tampa Bay Partnership's director of policy and research. He was a driving force in soliciting participation from area groups and assembling the final report.

(At the same event on Nov. 14, The Center for Analytics & Creativity at USF's Muma College of Business will introduce a related effort to create a companion regional prosperity index to help Tampa Bay business and city leaders evaluate the progress toward regional prosperity goals.)

Consider one key issue identified in the new Regional Competitiveness Report: Tampa Bay's relatively weak standing in the area of talent. The matter's already getting attention. A new task force being assembled and led by Troy Taylor, Tampa CEO of fast-growing Coca-Cola Beverages Florida, will seek ways to boost graduation rates and enhance skill-building options across the workforce.

RELATED COVERAGE: Seeking answers to Tampa Bay's talent problems

Meetings over the past year brought together a spectrum of organizations to provide input into what would become the Regional Competitiveness Report.

"I am a big believer in measuring. I can't manage without measures," says Baycare Health Systems' Dr. Ed Rafalski, the Clearwater-based health care system's chief strategy and marketing officer who participated in the report's development.

"Good, bad or indifferent, the data is the data. And now we have an opportunity to manage to a better place," he says. "We cannot do that without a starting point."

Longtime economic development leader Rhea Law, a high-profile Tampa attorney and chair of the Tampa Bay Partnership, expects the report to spawn unexpected "coalitions" built around specific issues "with people who have the ability to make a difference when they did not see commonality before."

At the University of South Florida, associate vice president for resource management and analysis Nick Setteducato sat in on a number of indicators meetings. At one, he asked a couple good questions to the group: Will the Regional Competitiveness Report become a launching pad to get things done? Or could it end up as one more document on a dusty bookshelf? Half-jokingly, he wondered how to make sure the report does not end up resembling a recent TV ad in which a dental patient is told he has a cavity — not by a dentist who will fix it but by a "dental monitor" who just "tells you when you have a bad cavity" then leaves for lunch.

"How do we not fall into that trap" of pointing out weaknesses but not addressing them, Setteducato asked. "We have to set targets for improving that are realistic."

Will this work to better Tampa Bay? Can it achieve lift-off? The impressive buy-in of so many diverse organizations seems like a powerful start.

Says Homans: "A key to this is ownership by the community. As an organization, we want to stay in the background. Who owns this data? Everybody owns it."

Contact Robert Trigaux at rtrigaux@tampabay.com. Follow @venturetampabay.

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