Editorial: Florida must invest in education to grow better jobs

For too long, Florida’s formula for job growth has been the economic equivalent of eating candy bars.

The state’s business and political leaders binged on the sweets of tourism and homebuilding for retirees — obvious choices in a state blessed with year-round sunshine and miles of beaches. But one cannot live on sweets forever.

Now that the economy is rebounding, it’s important that Florida have something more substantial to build its economic future.

The recent announcement that United Technologies will build a destination “green building” showplace in Palm Beach Gardens is welcome, since the showplace is expected to draw builders from throughout the Americas, and is expected to bring 380 jobs and a capital investment of $115 million here. But it took about $10 million worth of state and local incentives to make that happen. What will it take for United Technologies to send its R&D and manufacturing jobs here, too?

Florida’s long-term reliance on tourism and retirees has created an economy bottom-heavy with low-skilled, low-wage service jobs, often with no benefits or retirement security. While construction jobs are better, they are typically temporary and too often come with serious environmental impacts. As a consequence, Florida’s health care safety-net programs are overstressed; its teachers are underpaid; its schools and universities underfunded. And as The Post’s Wayne Washington is reporting in his thoughtful series, “A Question of Growth,” people who once thought they moved to paradise fear their quality of life is disappearing.

To its credit, Gov. Rick Scott’s economic development team acknowledges these challenges. Scott has made job creation his No. 1 mission, and he’s clearly getting positive results.

“Florida continues to beat larger states in job growth rates, and we are leading the rest of the nation in the number of jobs created,” Scott said in announcing July 22 that Florida’s private-sector June job growth rate of 3.9 percent was the highest among the 10 most-populous states.

Scott claims vindication for policies of tax cuts and less regulation. But it’s noteworthy that the day after his jobs announcement, Scott announced record-breaking tourism numbers. Florida attracted an astonishing 98.9 million visitors last year, he noted, adding, “The number of travel-related jobs is up 4.8 percent over last year, employing 1.2 million Floridians.”

It’s not just tourism, argues Florida Department of Economic Opportunity Executive Director Jesse Panuccio. He said that last year, the state added as many professional and business service industry jobs as it did jobs in the leisure and hospitality industry. And comparing June 2015 to June 2014, inflation-adjusted average hourly wages in the private sector were up nearly 2 percent.

But there’s much more to do if Florida is to truly diversify its economy. Last year, the LeRoy Collins Institute produced a must-read report called “Tougher Choices: Shaping Florida’s Future.” It offered important data points like this one: “Only 21.6 percent of Florida’s men age 25 to 34 have college degrees, compared to 27.1 percent of all men nationally.”

The message is clear: If Florida is to join the knowledge economy, improving educational quality and accessibility will be mandatory. The “Tougher Choices” report makes an excellent suggestion: Legislators should unbind the taxing capability of local school districts so that teacher pay can be increased in communities ready and willing to pay for better public schools.

It’s great that the quantity of jobs is increasing but, ultimately, it’s the quality that may matter more. And as the United Technologies project demonstrated, that doesn’t improve without investment.

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