News Column

STEM Jobs Fight Head Winds in Orlando

June 11, 2013

Metro Orlando may be home to more than 164,000 jobs requiring some special knowledge of science, technology, engineering or math, but it does not stack up well against the country's other 100 largest metro areas, according to a new report from the Brookings Institution.

Brookings says such "STEM" jobs account for about 17 percent of the total work force in Orlando's four-county metro area, which ranks it only 86th on the list of 100.

It finishes behind Florida's other large metro areas -- Miami-Fort Lauderdale (81st), Tampa-St. Petersburg (66th) and Jacksonville (64th) -- as well as neighboring Brevard County, home to Kennedy Space Center, which ranks third.

Orlando fares better when ranked by its total number of STEM jobs (33rd), but that ranking is driven largely by the metro area's size.

Brookings compiled the 2011 figures in a new report titled "The Hidden STEM Economy." It argues that there are far more science-and-technology jobs than previously thought and that many of them provide a good living for workers without a four-year college degree.

The report, for example, says that many jobs in manufacturing, health care, construction, maintenance and mining require some specialized STEM training but not necessarily a bachelor's degree. Brookings estimates that installation, maintenance and repair workers comprise about 10 percent of all STEM jobs.

"University attendance is not the only path to a STEM career," writes the report's author, Jonathan Rothwell. "While highly educated STEM professionals are a vital part of the economy, many less-educated and often blue-collar STEM workers contribute to economic growth and innovation in a variety of ways."

Rothwell argues that policy makers have too narrowly defined STEM jobs and, consequently, have spent little through the years on training programs that do not lead to a college degree. His report estimates that only 20 percent of the $4.3 billion in annual funding has been funneled to technical training or to programs leading to an associate degree.

Policy makers, he said, should reconsider their priorities.

"With modest training," said Rothwell, "many laid-off workers or those in low-paying jobs could embark on a more lucrative career path in a STEM field."

Under Brookings' broad definition of STEM jobs, Metro Orlando performs poorly, in part, because the local labor market is dominated by jobs tied to the tourism industry. During the past year, the number of leisure-and-hospitality jobs locally has grown by almost 5 percent, more than twice the rate of total job growth.

Today, the leisure-and-hospitality industries employ more than 216,000 people in Metro Orlando -- a record high -- and account for almost 21 percent of the area's entire work force. Although some of those jobs might fall under Brookings' broader definition of STEM jobs -- certain maintenance workers, for example -- the majority would not.

Metro Orlando Economic Development Commission spokeswoman Jennifer Wakefield said tourism remains the region's "bread and butter" and that its continued growth makes it difficult for other industries to claim larger shares of the total labor force.

But, Wakefield said, "the STEM field continues to evolve. We look forward to seeing where we fall in a few years."

Florida educators and politicians have been pushing students to take more math and science classes in the hope that, down the road, they can enter STEM careers. Historically, their focus has been careers that require a bachelor's degree, but this year they created a graduation option for noncollege-bound students who would like to pursue "industry certification" courses that might lead to a good-paying job.

Brookings points out that, even without a four-year degree, jobs that require STEM knowledge pay considerably more than non-STEM jobs. In Orlando, Brookings estimates that STEM jobs requiring an associate degree or less pay, on average, about $46,000 a year. Non-STEM jobs pay $29,000.

Nationally, STEM jobs that don't require a bachelor's degree pay $53,000 on average, while workers without four-year degrees in other fields earn just $33,000.



Source: (c)2013 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.). Distributed by MCT Information Services.