Invest in developing skills needed for upper-level jobs

Mar 11, 2004

Dan Gelber

The Miami Herald

In his recent State of the State address, Gov. Jeb Bush reassured Floridians that Florida's economy—as measured by employment—is strong. This assessment is at best faulty and at worst deceptive.

Any true measure of Florida's economy reveals data that show a state in dire need of an economic kick-start. Unless we invest in training a workforce able to attract and maintain high-quality industry, Floridians face a future of jobs with longer hours and lower wages. Regrettably, Bush's path lacks the basic components to provide this opportunity.

Bush expressed pride that Florida's job growth, though anemic, was better than some other states. However, he failed to acknowledge that Florida also has more people looking for jobs. A recent study by a Tallahassee-based think-tank, Civic Concern, showed that Florida's economy needed to create 250,000 more jobs simply to keep pace with its rapid population growth.

Further, it is not the number of jobs that is the most significant indicator of economic success; it is the type of jobs that are created. Florida is increasingly becoming a state full of low paying, often service-industry jobs. Currently, 30 percent of all wage earners in Florida do not make enough money to push them above the federal poverty level.

Unfortunately, this trend has gotten only worse under Bush. Florida has seen job growth only in the low-paying hospitality and leisure industry. But in the manufacturing, financial and wholesale-trade industries, where average pay is more than $40,000 per year, it has seen only job decline. If this trend continues, Florida is on track to secure its place as the state with the worst paying jobs in our nation.

The reason for this is painfully obvious. Florida has failed to invest in developing skills needed for upper-level employment. It ranks last in its per capita spending in public education and 49th in high school graduation rates.

The lowest priority

Every survey of national companies reflects their belief that Florida's inadequately trained workforce cannot support higher-paying jobs and high-tech industries. They refuse to move their businesses and families here, where education and workforce development are the lowest priority.

The value placed on education has impacted our ability to draw Fortune 500 companies into the state. Florida, the fourth largest state, is home to only 11 of the Fortune 500 companies, while the three largest states are home to 50 each. Recently Bush persuaded the Legislature to induce Scripps Pharmaceutical to open a research center in Palm Beach County. But to do so, Florida and local government agreed to pony up $500 million to buy Scripps the land, build the Scripps' facility and pay its employees their salaries and overhead for eight years. This may yet be a worthwhile investment, but only states create educational environments that make them desirable. Large industries seek out those states rather than being paid to locate there.

Bush's talk about how his $8 billion in tax cuts over the last five years have created a business-friendly environment in Florida just doesn't bear out,. There is no evidence that the tax cuts for specials interests and our wealthiest residents have created job growth or better salaries for Floridians.

Workforce development

If Bush is truly intent on addressing Florida's ailing economy, he must establish a strong basis for inducing high-quality industry by investing in education from early schooling through graduate years so that we have a workforce competitive with other states.

The state of Florida's economy will be strong when Floridians see an increase in high-paying jobs, an improvement in education rankings, a commitment to workforce development and national companies expressing interest in moving to Florida. We must invest in our children and ourselves before we can expect any one else to invest in our economy.

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