WalletHub Ranks Region Poorly for STEM Jobs



Economic and philanthropic leaders have invested heavily in boosting education resources in recent years for science, technology, engineering and math. Yet, a WalletHub study released last week shows the North Port-Bradenton-Sarasota metropolitan area as the second worst out of 100 in the nation for STEM professionals. Does the report expose genuine shortcomings on the Gulf Coast? In some ways, yes, according to many of these pushing hard for improvements, but there’s also plenty of skepticism about the data.

Mark Pritchett, president and CEO of the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, says, in truth, the WalletHub study largely reveals similar findings about the region’s challenges. But he stressed people should look at more than the overall ranking. For example, the study found the region scored 26th in STEM employment growth and in median wage growth for STEM workers. “You’ve got to build a foundation before you see results,” Pritchett says. “It’s a long play, and it takes a while.” The Gulf Coast Community Foundation has raised funding for the Sarasota County schools to put technology-enhanced classrooms for science and math throughout the district, providing a better STEM education atmosphere starting in some places as young as 5th grade, but it will take years for those students to bring their skills into the workforce.

And multiple leaders cited a community partnership with the University of Florida to open the Innovation Station here. Allen Carlson, regional director for the UF facility, notes the Gainesville university is now a Top 10 research institution, and the local presence will connect companies with school resources. Innovation Station works to place interns from the UF engineering program, and to provide education classes in the county to UF students working toward a degree. And the recent opening of the school should help with one part of the WalletHub study where Sarasota gets knocked; this area ranks 62nd in terms of quality engineering universities.

All this shows philanthropic leaders that investment in STEM tackles the region's great challenges. From that viewpoint, Greg Luberecki, Gulf Coast Community Foundation communication director, says the WalletHub study shows more work is needed, not less. “Overall the data has shown and we’ve known for a decade now,” he says. “We do have to invest in stem skills for jobs of the future.”

Of course, some leaders didn’t put much weight in the data at all. Mark Huey, president and CEO of the Economic Development Corporation of Sarasota County, pointed instead at a different study by the Milken Institute that ranked Sarasota as the sixth best performing city in the nation based on economic growth. And Carlson says while some of the WalletHub numbers seemed right, some did not, and he didn’t buy the region should be near the bottom of the list.

Luberecki notes some of the parameters of the study correctly spotlighted problems, for example noting the metro area was 98th in the region in terms of housing affordability. But then that data cuts more than one way. “Those challenges in housing affordability rise because of the excellent quality of life we have here,” he says.

And Pritchett isn’t sure Sarasota will ever join tech-heavy cities like Seattle, Boston, Pittsburgh or Austin, the top four metro areas on the list, simply because the existing economy was build on other cornerstones like hospitality. “We’ll always be a service economy,” he says. But that doesn’t mean the region shouldn't strive to diversify and improve. “There are certain things happening that are changing things,” Pritchett says. “But you don’t just flip a switch and see it happen overight.”

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