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STEM jobs: Tampa Bay leads Florida but can it become a bigger tech player?

If becoming a 21st century metro area means having lots of better paying technology-related job opportunities, then Tampa Bay should give itself a pat on the back — and keeping pushing for more.

A creative analysis by Bloomberg News recently ranked the nation's 100 top metro areas for STEM jobs — meaning jobs that required education in science, technology, engineering or math. In the process, the analysis revealed a number of lesser known cities that are STEM magnets, defined as places having higher percentages of the kind of tech-related employment that not only offers better pay but will likely assure these metro areas as more competitive players in the future.

The Bloomberg analysis characterized its findings with this headline: The Unlikely Cities That Will Power the U.S. Economy.

The good news is that Tampa Bay fared better in this STEM analysis than any other metro area in Florida. The analysis, based on U.S. Department of Labor statistics, shows Tampa Bay has 64,290 STEM-related jobs equal to 5.5 percent of its workforce. No other larger metro area in Florida matches either of these measures, though smaller Palm Bay on the east coast claims 9.9 percent of its tinier workforce are STEM jobs.

Orlando closely followed Tampa Bay's strong showing with 55,350 STEM jobs making up 5.1 percent of its workforce — a signal that the west-to-east Central Florida swath of technology growth is the state's most promising STEM region. South Florida metro areas, as well as Jacksonville, trailed Tampa Bay and Orlando with lower percentages of STEM-related jobs.

Tampa Bay's state-level success is important. The analysis should encourage the recent push by the metro area's technology community via its Tampa Bay Technology Forum advocacy group to promote the area as an up-and-comer in a broad range of technology work. And the analysis underpins more grass roots efforts — from the long-standing efforts by TBTF Workforce Initiative director Pat Gehant, most recently with student education programs run in conjunction with Tech Data executive Angie Beltz, to dozens of area college, high school, robotics clubs and even Girls and Boys Club programs — to expose young people to STEM opportunities and introduce many of them to businesses that provide internships and, sometimes, jobs in this arena.

All commendable. But is it enough? Can Tampa Bay one day become one of those "unlikely" metro areas cities that will power the country's economy?

Looking beyond Florida, the outlook is far more challenging. Among larger population states, Florida sadly trails well behind California, Texas and New York (though it is reassuring to see Tampa Bay slightly outranks New York City in its percentage of STEM jobs).

No surprise, the SanJose/SiliconValley area tops the nation with 209,330 STEM-related jobs equaling a whopping 21.5 percent of its workforce. Nearby San Francisco boasts 12.1 percent of its workforce in STEM jobs. In Texas, Austin leads with 11.1 percent, while both Dallas and Houston top 8 percent.

Seattle, home to Microsoft, Amazon and lots of Boeing workers, enjoys 13.2 percent of its jobs in the STEM field, while Boston dominates New England with 11.2 percent. And the Washington, D.C., area tops the country in its sheer number of STEM jobs — 285,470 — representing a respectable 12 percent of the workforce.

The top 20 metropolitan areas by STEM employment account for half the STEM jobs in Bloomberg's analysis.

What's most interesting, perhaps, are some of the smaller metros that are so rich in STEM jobs. They include Boulder, Colo., with 16 percent; Huntsville, Ala., with 16.7 percent; and Durham, N.C. — home to the Research Triangle — 13.9 percent. Huntsville was kick-started with government funding for rocket development there during World War II and, later, with work for NASA. Now it is far more tech-diversified.

Cities including Denver; Minneapolis; Portland, Ore.; Detroit and Warren, Mich. (both presumably full of auto engineers), Oakland and San Diego, Calif.; and Albuquerque, N.M., all ranked in the high single digits for STEM jobs in their workforces.

Looking at broad regions of the country, the Southeast has a long way to go to catch up with other parts of the East Coast, West Coast and Texas. But based on this analysis, Tampa Bay's got a solid chance to become one of the clear STEM job leaders in the state and, perhaps, on a bigger playing field.

Contact Robert Trigaux at Follow @venturetampabay.