Focus on education, skills and modern economy

Foggy weather highway

In important ways, the last dozen years have been kind to our community. We’ve made up lost ground in personal income and we’re adapting to changing demographics. But we’re not the working-class, manufacturing and military Pensacola that we were two generations ago.

We are on average older than before, as retirees increasingly choose us over crowded South Florida, and visitors contribute an increasing share of our spending. How do we ensure that the ebb and flow of people looking for economic opportunity and quality of life moves in our direction? The articles in this special report have an overarching focus on people, and how and why they connect with our community. Here, as in communities around the nation, the modern economy — global and knowledge-intensive — has rewarded those with scarce skills even as it punished many whose skills are not in short supply.

The only strategies that will give our residents higher living standards call for full engagement: from teachers, schools, students, residents, businesses, community leaders and politicians. Education has to come first, and when we get it right, community health and poverty outcomes will improve dramatically.

The answer is not all about STEM — science, technology, engineering, math — but it is all about engagement, commitment and education. You’ve read about fast-growing technology companies with owners committed to our community. The sector is not yet big enough to keep STEM-savvy kids in town and attract new ones, although the IT needs of growing firms are making a noticeable positive difference. A self-sustaining critical mass will come only when the sector is big enough so that tech companies can count on finding skilled workers, and so that tech workers know their current employer is not the only game in town. Our fastest-growing sectors have been health care, education and the service economy, with a large and healthy tourism sector. But many jobs in tourism are on the lower rungs of the job ladder. Can tourism contribute to a higher quality of life? Land was cheap when Walt Disney flew over Orlando in 1963, the same year that Florida passed laws creating universities in Pensacola and Orlando. He was reportedly impressed not just by the weather, but also by the transportation infrastructure of Interstate 4, the Florida Turnpike and the airport. Demography is destiny, and the University of Central Florida now consistently ranks in the top three U.S. universities in enrollment. Both UCF and the University of West Florida have excellent programs that produce well-trained graduates. Enrollment growth is almost the only source of financing for new cutting-edge higher education programs under Florida’s funding formula. When combined with sustained quality, the problems of growth are better than the problems of stagnation. Orlando has become a more diverse and dynamic economy where well-trained graduates can get a job and investors can generate consistent returns year-round. For a similar growth dynamic to catch hold here and create more widespread economic opportunity, businesses need customers beyond our traditional summer beach season. Many of the articles in the report have shown how people are doing just that. We like to say that Escambia and Santa Rosa counties are joined at the hip. But we are actually closer than that. Commute patterns tell us that the thin blue lines that separate our counties exist only on the map. High-wage jobs in the Pensacola urban core and at the military bases in Fort Walton Beach support high-quality residential lifestyles and schools of Santa Rosa County. We should advertise our diverse neighborhoods to curious businesses and potential workforce as one community. Since our residents find that it makes their lives better to commute across the bay, our leaders should find it worthwhile to bridge their differences.

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