Guest commentary: Talent is our raw material, and we must invest in it

Our state is seeing signs of an economic turnaround. Home sales are picking up. Unemployment is retreating.

Have we rounded the corner? I believe so, but we are a long way from a full rebound.

But we can take steps, now, to make this recovery a turning point — a redesign of Florida into a state of talent and innovation.

We need to start by investing wisely, and we need to act now — not later. The economic world is changing fast. A new economic game is taking shape. Whether our state is a player in that new economy, or just a spectator on the sideline, will depend on our decisions today.

The best decision we can make is to invest in talent production through higher education. Talent is what Florida’s State University System (SUS) produces every year — high-quality talent and world-class research. Both are keys to Florida’s future success. The new economy, the knowledge economy, is one of creative enterprises, which are talent-driven. Talent today is the iron and steel of yesterday — a precious commodity and the source of economic power and prosperity. It is critical to Florida’s goal of diversifying our economy.

Diversification is important. Florida’s economy has always rested on agriculture, and, for the last 100 years, on tourism as well. Both are strong sectors that will sustain our economy for many years to come. But can we count on relentless growth, which was the third sector of Florida’s 20th-century economy?

That’s a gamble. We need a new sector, a talent sector, to broaden our economic foundation and give our state the intellectual muscle needed for global competition. A talent sector is built on a well-educated population, citizens who have the skills, the ability, the know-how and the confidence to take new opportunities and turn them into new enterprises and new prosperity.

Producing these well-educated citizens is the mission of the SUS. We are doing a good job. Florida’s 11 public universities graduate almost 70,000 people with degrees each academic cycle. And we can do even better. Working with our partners in Florida’s K-12 public schools and the State College System, the SUS can lead the way in creating more opportunities for Floridians to pursue a college degree. With the right investment, we can push the number of university graduates to 100,000.

That’s a small army of eager, ambitious and well-educated individuals turned loose on the Florida economy every year. Think of what that would mean to our state and its future, and the future of every young Floridian. This investment in talent is what Florida needs to slingshot out of the economic doldrums and into the knowledge-based competition of the 21st century.

Investment in talent requires predictable funding for the SUS. Predictable funding means we can plan, strategically, to meet our obligations and responsibilities in this future economy. Our university system is ready to build accountability tools to ensure the best use of every dollar, and to demonstrate these efficiencies in clearly understood, easily measurable ways.

The SUS is also ready to collaborate, in a rich and meaningful way, with Florida’s businesses and industries to make the best use of our research talent and laboratories. We have a record of doing so — we want to build on those collaborations and those successful partnerships.

Florida is already at an advantage, thanks to insightful decisions by our Legislature and local governments. By investing in bioscience, Florida has enticed Scripps and Torrey Pines institutes, the SRI International marine science center, the Burnham Institute and the Max Planck Institute and others to set up research facilities in our state. Florida is now a research center — a watershed development for our future as a state of innovation.

But that is just the first step. Now we need to maximize this advantage. We need to generate the highly educated work force and confident entrepreneurs who can take breakthroughs in medicine and other sciences and turn those into economic success stories. That’s what this billion-dollar investment in bioscience is all about.

That’s the promise of Florida’s future. To reach it, we must support talent development through education. We must invest in the SUS. That’s the wise decision — the opportunity we must seize at this time. And that’s how Florida will transform itself into a state of innovation.

Brogan is former president of Florida Atlantic University, lieutenant governor under Gov. Jeb Bush and Florida’s commissioner of education. Contact him at

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