Skills gap still a problem in Miami


South Florida businesses continue to face a skills gap, as employers go looking for coders, programmers and other workers trained in specialized fields.

That was one of the themes running through a series of panel discussions and addresses hosted by the Greater of Miami Chamber of Commerce on Thursday. The event, called the South Florida Economic Summit, explored the strengths and weaknesses of the local economy as the region moves from an historic downturn to a recovery that appears to be shifting from wobbly to a more solid pace.

“It is maybe easier to attract junior people who are single and want to come to Miami. But when people have families, it is harder. said Laura Maydon, managing director for Endeavor Miami.

“Some companies ultimately have to go to other major cities,’’ said fellow panelist Phillippe Houdard, co-founder of Pipeline Brickell, a shared office space complex that caters to start-ups. “That’s a pretty consistent trend we see.”

The comments touched on a long-running challenge for South Florida. An under-performing school system, a relatively small pool of professional and tech employers, and a general reputation for sun-and-fun vacations has made it harder to keep and attract college graduates and more veteran executives able to field offers from across the country.

“The issue of skills is a sleeper issue across America,’’ U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez told the Summit’s luncheon crowd.

Economists and policy makers cite a skills gap as a pocket of opportunity in a battered hiring market, since even in the depths of the recession some employers had jobs they couldn’t fill. Martin Schaaf, of Boeing, argued the country would be better served if a college degree wasn’t pitched as a “must’’ for a successful career since working in the trades also brings solid income.

“We put so much emphasis on the four-year college degree or the master’s degree that we have left out the people really needed to get the job done,’’ Schaaf said. “I started as a mechanic. It took me 18 years to get a college degree.

“Let’s face it,’’ he continued. “Many of you have children. Not all of them are cut out to go to college.”

Panelists throughout the morning described an economy notably stronger than in recent years, with a feeling that 2014 had the promise of ramping up a recovery that so far has been real but also anemic. Mike Jackson, CEO of AutoNation, a national dealership chain based in Fort Lauderdale, said 2013 saw the national economy turn a corner.

“We passed a tipping point in the 12 months where the values of homes have started to recover,’’ Jackson said. “That has settled everybody down in terms of their nest egg and what it’s worth.”

The real estate crash is expected to be a bright spot for the fixing the skills gap, since companies have long cited housing costs as a recruitment hurdle. With historically low housing prices, a burgeoning entertainment and residential corridor in downtown Miami, local leaders see less of a brain drain in the coming years.

“I think the ability to recruit into South Florida has become easier,’’ said Juan Carlos Mas, CEO of the Mas Group. “We still have some challenges at the public-school level. Selling Miami as a luxury brand has gotten much easier.”

Miami now ranks in the Top 10 worldwide for $1 million-plus residential purchases among clients of Christie's International Real Estate, said Bonnie Stone Sellers. For NetJets, the fractional jet ownership firm held by Berkshire Hathaway, South Florida commands a greater market share than New York and Texas, with 4,500 flights last year in and out of the region, said NetJets Senior Vice President Cory Valentine.

Larger political debates weren’t far from Thursday’s agenda, as speakers touched on topics at the heart of the divide between Republicans and Democrats on how to fix the economy. Secretary Perez urged more spending on government infrastructure, while Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, told a morning group how unpopular budget-cutting can be.

“I’ve been governor for three years. Nobody has ever come into my office I want you to cut spending somewhere,’’ Scott said. “They say, I want you to spend money this way, and this way, and this way. And, by the way, I want my taxes to go down.”

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