Economic development in Northwest Florida depends on education

by April 21, 2008 • 2 comments

JuliannBy: Juliann Talkington

Juliann Talkington is the administrator of the Panama City Renaissance School. Reach her on 850-215-8712 or jtalkington@pcrschool.org.

On Friday, Florida’s Great Northwest, the economic development organization for our region, presented details on a target industry study. The event was attended by government officials and business and community leaders from Bay County and the surrounding areas. The study suggested our region has a competitive advantage in four target industries: 1) aerospace and defense, 2) health sciences and human performance-enhancement, 3) renewal energy and environment and 4) transportation and logistics.

Several sectors require highly skilled personnel, many with engineering, science or math degrees. The region has struggled and continues to struggle to get technology companies to locate in Northwest Florida, because there are not enough highly skilled residents to fill the jobs. To make matters more challenging, companies considering the area believe they will have difficulty getting highly educated personnel to relocate here.

Primary and secondary education is always a concern when families with school-aged children are considering relocation. In the San Francisco Bay Area, for example, there are many options in both the public and private sectors — from language immersion programs to Ivy League prep schools.

To make the matters more challenging for the Florida Panhandle, parents are starting to consider offshore options for education too. Children in private schools from Mexico to China graduate at a much higher academic level than children in the US. And unlike US programs, these programs are much less expensive. As a result, parents are now considering overseas assignments rather than relocation within the US.

So how do we solve the education challenges, so we can attract high quality technical businesses to the area?

We have two problems — lack of marketing and lack of high quality choices.

Most of our promotional materials and discussion focus on the public education system, something only a fraction of highly educated people moving from large metropolitan areas would consider. If they are sending their children to private schools in Palo Alto, they will want to send their children to a high-quality private school on the Florida Panhandle.

Almost every week I get calls from people who are considering a move to Northwest Florida. Some call because their jobs allow them to live almost anywhere, so they are researching educational options around the country. Others are considering jobs in the area and want an academic program equivalent to or better than they can find in the major metropolitan area where they live. And a few want to return to the US and find an educational equivalent to what they have overseas.

With all of these calls, I have to wonder how many other people don’t find our website or the websites of some of the other innovative educational options in the area and as a result make the decision that Northwest Florida is not for them.

Also, we must realize we are no longer competing with other communities in Florida, but we are competing with very livable cities around the globe. We have to offer educational choices as good as what is available elsewhere or companies will have no incentive to locate here.

So we need broader, more inclusive marketing and to start making adjustments that allow us to not only outperform Seattle and New York, but Singapore and India. Once we make these adjustments our economic development offices should be more worried with how to accommodate all the interested companies rather than how to get anyone interested.

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1 Kenneth Fach April 22, 2008 at 12:00 pm

We will not resolve the education problem until we lower the costs of education, since educating our children should not be a financial burden, and reducing the class size. I personally believe that home schooled children get a better education since the size of class is much smaller. Common sense says that smaller size means more attention to the student.

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2 MJ April 22, 2008 at 5:53 pm

Countries that are outscoring American students on math and science tests typically have classrooms with 40+ students. So I do not believe that class size is the problem.

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