Is Florida going too far pushing STEM education? Is the state steering too many students toward university educations when they can get better-paying work in the trades without taking out $60,000 in student loans? Is the state ignoring its current workforce needs while trying to educate students for future economies?
Republican gubernatorial candidate Adam Putnam has been raising those possibilities on the campaign train, as he did Wednesday morning during an “Up & Adam” breakfast speech to the Kissimmee Elks Club.
In his 27-minute speech, as he has done in other recent speeches, the Florida agriculture commissioner both implored the need for Florida to develop an innovative economy, and downplayed the need for advanced education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics – so called STEM education – as not for everybody.
Putnam argues that most of the jobs in Florida’s current economy require technical training not university education, and the state needs to recognize that with the way it is steering and educating people.
“We say that we want to produce our students to be college and career ready. But we only mean it when we say ‘college ready,'” Putnam said Wednesday. “Two-thirds of our people do not have a university degree. That’s OK, as long as we are exposing our young people to the opportunities to earn as welders, heavy equipment operators, nurses, IT tech, regional sales, farmers, manufacturers, the construction trades, all jobs that are paying more than the barista at the coffee shop with the sociology degree who has a $60,0o0 student loan.
“Rather than pressure our students into student loan debt for a degree they don’t want and can’t use, lets bring back career technical education to the schools,” he added.
Seeking a renewed commitment to technical education – from shop classes in middle schools to job certification programs in community colleges – is neither new nor unusual. Gubernatorial candidates on both sides of the aisle press for more technical education opportunities. Putnam faces state Sen. Jack Latvala seeking the Republican primary nomination to run for governor in 2018, and Democrats Chris King, former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum. All have espoused more technical and vocational education programs for Florida.
Putnam, however, has suggested putting more emphasis on an education system preparing for Florida’s current economy, rather than considering expanded STEM education as a tool to evolve Florida’s economy.
Putnam talked about an economic diversity defined as having “agriculture, and tourism, and construction, and manufacturing, and high tech. We can be all of those things, and if we are, nobody can touch us.” He also shared a vision of innovative entrepreneurs starting their businesses in spare bedrooms.
“I’m not saying it’s one against the other. I’m saying stop telling our kids that there is something wrong with hard work, and building a business, and building things, and innovating things,” he said. “The state that’s the fishing capital of the world ought to build more boats in Florida. The state that put a man on the moon ought to have the innovation economy to have the next giant leap for mankind in today’s technologies.”
He acknowledged STEM education as “very important if we’re going to be competitive globally, but said it is not reflecting the state’s current workforce needs.
“Every month the governor puts on the cabinet’s desk the list of job vacancies all across Florida. And every month for seven years number one has been nursing. Every month for seven years number three or number four has been a truck driver. We need need folks in this economy. A third of those vacancies are STEM. Two-thirds are good old-fashioned retail, finance, manufacturing, logistics, agriculture type job classifications,” Putnam said.