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Tampa Bay’s millennial workforce challenge shown in five charts | Editorial
The region falls short in many areas, some of them more obvious than others.
Tampa skyline pictured on Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022.
Tampa skyline pictured on Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Jan. 28|Updated Jan. 28

A young and well-educated workforce helps make great cities great. More than just developing a hip and creative vibe, lots of 20- and 30-somethings with college degrees or advanced certifications attract businesses. Those businesses in turn attract more high-performing employees to the area. It’s a virtuous cycle.

Put more bluntly: Talent rules. Why is young talent particularly important? The more an area has, the more likely the area is to be prosperous — now and in the future. It’s a key ingredient in regional economic performance, not just affecting wage growth but even whether an area’s children are ready for kindergarten or how they score on math tests. The better those children do in school, the more likely they will find a good job. Again, the virtuous talent cycle.

Cities compete for the young and educated. They try to create homegrown talent, keep the current talent from fleeing and attract talent from other parts of the country. An increase in working remotely — for a business located in another state, for instance — adds a wrinkle, but the equation remains largely the same. Those professionals have to live somewhere, spend their money somewhere, raise their families somewhere. Tampa Bay, for instance, had very few technology entrepreneurs 15 years ago. Now, they are drawing hundreds of millions of venture capital investments, from both inside and outside the area.

But the region still has a talent gap, at least compared to many similar metro areas, according to the findings of the Tampa Bay Partnership’s annual Regional Competitiveness Report. The interesting report compares our metro area to 19 others, in dozens of categories ranging from food insecurity to household income to air quality. There is a whole section devoted just to talent that measures educational attainment and readiness to attend school, among other things.

In 2018, the Tampa Bay area did not crack the top 10 in any of the 12 talent categories. This year was largely the same, though we placed 10th in the share of 3- and 4-year-olds enrolled in school. In several of the talent categories, the Tampa Bay area remains in the bottom five. While it is unrealistic over just four years to catch up to Raleigh-Durham’s impressive rate of residents with graduate or professional degrees, Tampa Bay’s low-to-middling showing in so many of the categories illustrates how the other cities aren’t standing still. The competition never ends.

The report presents a guide for the Tampa Bay area as it tries to close the talent gap on those other cities. Some of the factors are well known, though seeing the area ranked against other regions drives home the breadth of the challenge.

Start with income. Earning potential is often a major factor for younger workers. They want to know their pay will increase as they gain experience. Unfortunately, the Tampa Bay region ranked last among the 20 regions in household income.

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Income only tells part of the story. Cost of living matters, too. But the area didn’t score well for affordability either, thanks to those low incomes combined with the increased cost of housing and a larger slice of incomes spent on transportation.

The Tampa Bay area’s reliance on cars and trucks to get around — and an anemic public transit system — contribute to those transportation costs. A car-dominated community puts off the slice of younger workers who don’t want to own a vehicle, who want to walk to work or the local coffee shop or restaurant. It might also help if the streets were safer for pedestrians — only Orlando had a higher rate of pedestrian and cyclist deaths, the report said.

Not everyone needs a college degree to prosper, but the Tampa Bay area lagged in nearly every measure of education included in the report, from the percentage of residents with a bachelor’s degree to the number of 16- to 24-year-olds who are working or in school. The area did a little better in the rate of residents with academic and technical certificates, but still fell in the middle of the pack. The area ranked 17th in the number of 25- to 34-year-old with at least a bachelor’s degree, a measure that shows how “well a community is doing in its efforts to retain and attract the millennial generation — particularly the most educated and talented ones,” the report said.

The Tampa Bay area’s population continues to grow, a good indication of how attractive the region remains to outsiders. In fact, Tampa Bay was second only to Austin, Texas in net migration, according to the report. But ... the area dropped to 12th in the number of new 25- to 34-year-olds who are living in the region compared to a year earlier. That doesn’t bode as well for growing a young and educated workforce.

There is no doubt that the Tampa Bay region has made big strides in developing a more diverse and innovative workforce over the last few decades. The area remains an attractive place to live and work for many people. But nowhere is perfect. Don’t let the appearance of a bustling downtown St. Pete and its Beach Drive scene or Tampa’s Riverwalk success blind us to the challenges of attracting the young talent we need. And doing that doesn’t mean leaving behind seniors living on fixed incomes or older workers closer to the end of their careers. It’s not an either-or. A vibrant economy needs all of these people. Every city has its rough spots. Identifying those weaknesses is not a slight or a poke in the eye. It’s a step on the way to getting even better.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.

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