Florida still needs STEM improvement

Staff Writer
The Destin Log
STEM-related fields are in high demand. [Dreamstime/TNS file]

WalletHub, the personal finance website, recently unveiled another of its frequent rankings. This time the focus was on states’ STEM companies and workforce — those firms and jobs in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math — and offered mixed reviews for Florida.

The rankings were determined by states’ “human capital” — for example, the number of STEM professionals, the ratio of science and engineering grads in the overall workforce, eighth-graders’ scores on science and math exams — and the “innovation environment” — which was based on things like the number of tech companies relative to the total number of businesses, spending on research and development and the number of patents issued within the states.

In order of the “most innovative” states, Florida ranked 18th overall. Yet Florida was number one in the deep South. Only Virginia, which reaps tons of federal money from neighboring Washington, D.C., outpaced Florida among Southern states, and Florida actually bested Virginia for “innovation environment,” finishing 12th overall.

Coming in No. 18 is respectable, but the Sunshine State can — and must — do better.

Florida’s better-than-average position on WalletHub’s list seems somewhat at odds with its place in some individual categories. Florida, for example, ranks 42nd in terms of the number of STEM professionals in the workforce, 37th in per capita R&D spending, 33rd in the number of science and engineering workers age 25 or older, and 34th for eighth-grade exam scores.

Still, the situation highlighted by WalletHub suggests state leaders were listening back in 2010, when the Florida Chamber of Commerce sounded the alarm about the need to improve Florida’s STEM-related economy and education with a wide-ranging report evaluating where the state stood nationally and internationally.

“While the economy calls for a larger and more proficient STEM workforce, enrollment and success in those courses is declining,” the report stated, noting some areas where Florida lagged mirrored those of the nation as a whole. “As a state and nation,” it added, “we are losing ground.”

One metric that seems to be missing — not just in Florida but throughout the nation — is imagination and creativity. It's one thing to have the knowledger; it's another to be able to apply that knowledge in a unique way, creating new sources of capital and inspiration that can feed off itself and gestate into something inspiring and innovative.

While performance on national standardized math and science exams by Florida’s fourth- and eight-graders have mostly improved since 2009, ither areas, however, we’re slipping.

For Florida, the foundation reported declines in the number of advanced science and engineering degrees, relative to undergrad degrees in those areas; the number of engineers, life scientists and physical scientists, as a percentage of the total labor force; in federal dollars targeting research by small businesses (those with fewer than 500 employees).

A version of this editorial first appeared in the Ledger, a Destin Log sister paper with GateHouse Media.