There isn't a lot for high school students to be optimistic about regarding the economy they are likely to enter after college, especially when compared to the ones that their parents, grandparents and even great-grandparents might have experienced. In many ways, the higher education system has been slow in adapting in order to prepare students for entering what will be the most globally-competitive workforce in the history of mankind. However, the University of South Florida's latest initiative to become a leader in the field of cybersecurity could be a big step in the right direction.
In a globalized world without level playing fields, countries with the cheapest workforces, least amount of regulations and lowest cost of living are best positioned to absorb low-skill employment opportunities for jobs that can be done anywhere (a category that is quickly growing because of advances in technology).
Ideally, higher cost of living economies with advanced societies that value things like clean water, low levels of toxic pollution and minimum worker exploitation will have a much more educated and otherwise highly-skilled population and will compete with each other for higher paying, technology-based jobs in instances where they too can cross borders. However, technology has also had an unforeseen impact in this sector, as robotics and other forms of automation have vastly increased productivity, reducing the amount of skilled workers needed in high-tech fields.
Needless to say, the U.S. has not done a good job of managing its position in this paradigm. We can argue until we are blue in the face about the ideological reasons for this reality and most of us still wouldn't agree. Nonetheless, we are clearly at a critical juncture in which we must decide whether we will seek to compete with less-advanced societies by lowering protective regulations and rolling back worker compensation and rights, or act to recapture a position further up the food chain, producing highly competitive top-tier workers in high-tech trades.
To a large degree, Florida has been battling Texas to do the former, envisioning a state that will continue to rely on the relocation of aging boomers, the homes they build and the low-skill service workers their lifestyles require, in order to employ tomorrow's homegrown workforce. Like many Floridians, I oppose this mindset and envision a Florida in which the best and brightest stay rather than flee. In order to do that, we will have to act to become a hub for emerging, clean, high-tech industries in growth sectors.
USF's efforts to build a leading center for educating a new elite in the increasingly important and growth-laden field of cybersecurity is exactly the sort of mindset Florida should be adopting. If done correctly, a program of this magnitude could help the state to finally leverage its many competitive advantages – low cost of living, tropical climate, no state income tax, etc. – to become an industry leader in an emerging market that fits the description.
Our state needs to do more to stop the brain drain. Every year, the majority of our very best and brightest high school students take off for other higher education hubs. When a student leaves the state for college, they are statistically much less likely to return than those who matriculate to in-state schools.
We've already missed the boat on many of our best opportunities. We've watched gray-sky states like New York launch more aggressive efforts to capture areas like solar energy production. When a state has top-shelf university programs in a particular field, it also acts as a magnet in drawing the industry to build production facilities near these employee-producing hubs.
That sort of synergy not only keeps the smartest kids close by, but it can help a state draw such intellectual resources from its neighbors. Imagine the impact if Florida could not only reverse the flow of that drain brain, but also start to lure more A-list students from nearby states, who might otherwise be off to schools like Georgia Tech or Duke.
As recent events like the major breach at Target have demonstrated, the demand in this field will only increase as the technologies that drive it continue to become more advanced. USF's program is only in its infancy and we are surely not the only state that is eying this opportunity. However, this effort demonstrates just the sort of ambitions we ought to have, if we expect to build a competitive 21st century economy in our state.
Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Click here to visit his column archive. Click here to go to his bio page. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook.
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