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Other Views from Those in the Know
Florida Voices: Tech Industry Decries Cuts in Computer Science
Heather Kenyon
CEO, TBTF
Invest in Science and Tech, Where the Jobs Are

Recently I visited the University of Florida and had the opportunity to tour the Computer Science Department as well as the Innovation Center where they have great plans to foster entrepreneurship.  I left deeply impressed by the strides they had made and somewhat depressed about how far I felt we needed to go in Tampa to match them.  On my tour of the Career Resource Center they told me that each student that graduates with a computer science degree has 3-4 job offers and companies start recruiting students as early as their sophomore year.  

 

This is why I was relieved to hear that the Forbes report about UF defunding its Computer Science department and merging it into the Engineering Department was not true. Steven Salzberg from Forbes had reported that UF was making the decision to drop the department, allowing it to save about $1.7 million.  While the department will not in fact be dropped, it still appears that  the school will be making cuts, particularly in the area of teaching assistants in computer science.

 

The benefit of Salzberg’s  alarming but ultimately factually incorrect report is that it has brought nationwide attention to the fact that Florida state legislators have cut UF’s budget by more than 30 percent over the past 6 years. Locally, USF just dodged a bullet by only having to absorb $45 million worth of cuts instead of $79 million. Statewide however, we are looking at $300 million in state funding from state universities during the next fiscal year.

 

All of this is occurring when we in the trenches realize that technology companies are facing a crisis.  While there is rampant unemployment in areas such as construction and other industries upon which Florida’s economy has traditionally relied, the technology departments and technology companies in the area are struggling to find highly skilled talent to fill their IT jobs.  

 

Unemployment for IT positions is estimated to be about 2 percent, which is basically equivalent to people switching jobs.  Catalina Marketing, a booming company based in St Petersburg, has just purchased a mobile device company that will require it to hire 15 more Java programmers, which only adds to the other positions for which they can’t find people.  Nielsen Media in Oldsmar similarly talks openly about the 100 IT positions they are looking to fill, as does GFI in Clearwater.  Bayshore Solutions, a Tampa web development company, has just opened a branch in Denver to help with their need for more talented tech employees.

 

My biggest concern is that we are dooming Florida to a future of low-skill jobs where the only opportunities are for service positions and call centers.  Respected UF economists Jim Dewey and Dave Denslow wrote a paper about their concerns about Florida’s future — specifically that we are at a “tipping point” where we need to try to develop an economy that makes us more competitive in the global knowledge economy.  Certainly cutting computer science departments to the bone is not the way to go about this.  We need to send a message to our elected officials that this is a poorly conceived and unbelievably short sighted plan that ultimately does only harm to the future of Florida.  

 

A brand-new public university, Florida Polytechnic University, was created in order to provide more workforce in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields.  But it is clear that no one has a master plan.  Why do current universities need to cut funds, but we can somehow find funds to  create yet another university? 

 

It is my belief that people in the technology space who have a stake in future of Florida need to be more participatory when it comes to the lobbying efforts traditional industries have down to a science.  If we can get a group of people that are growing companies and driving the economy of Florida to the table to speak as one voice to our elected officials, then I think we have a real opportunity to change Florida’s future economic direction.  I for one am going to give it a try, and I am looking for people that are as passionate as I am to help me “carry the water” for the rest of the technology companies in the region.

 

Students will be educated in computer science. They will get high paying technology jobs. They will settle down and start families, buy houses, spend money and pay taxes. They will be part of the tax base that raises the bar in education and new innovation. They will do all of this, just not in Florida.

 

We will cut again next year, and the year after that. Twenty years from now, we will be having the same conversation about budget cuts in education just like we were 20 years ago. People in other states will talk about how we are a state of retirees with no interest in education, high tech industries or high wage job creation. When do we break the cycle?

Heather Kenyon is the chief executive officer of the Tampa Bay Technology Forum. She can be reached at hkenyon@tbtf.org.

Published Thursday, April 26, 2012