North Port-Sarasota-Bradenton area ranked low for science, tech job climate

MANATEE -- Though local economic development officials, colleges and tech companies have their weight behind creating science, technology, engineering and math jobs, a new analysis authored by a Washington, D.C., financial information clearinghouse ranks the North Port-Sarasota-Bradenton area as one of the worst in the nation for tech workers.

According to WalletHub's survey of the STEM jobs market in the nation's top 100 metro areas, Sarasota-Manatee's metropolitan statistical area ranked 97th overall. It recorded the lowest annual median wage growth of the metro areas WalletHub ranked, as well as the lowest number of job openings in STEM job fields.

But deep in the details, the ranking holds out hope for the area, rating it high for its emphasis on STEM education and STEM job growth.

The overall results surprised James Humphrey, co-chairman of the Sarasota-Bradenton chapter of biotech industry group BioFlorida. Humphrey, who is also the chief operating officer of medical research company Roskamp Institute, said he has seen growth in his sector of the local STEM market over the past 12 years. He thinks the area is poised to grow explosively in the near future.

Local colleges are putting more money into STEM programs, he said, while Manatee and Sarasota county economic development corporations have targeted the industry with relocation and expansion incentives.

"We're still in the beginning-ish," Humphrey said. "It's taken a while to get the pieces in place."

The data in WalletHub's survey takes the North Port-Sarasota-Bradenton area to task in a number of STEM areas, including housing, unemployment and wages. The metro area ranked 95th in the availability of affordable housing for STEM professionals and 72nd for its unemployment rate for residents with bachelor's degrees or higher.

Its annual median wage for STEM workers also lagged in the data. According to WalletHub, that median was $58,216. The top median wage in the study was $79,589 in the Hous

ton metro area.

At a more local level, Manatee County seems to be bucking the trend indicated by the WalletHub data. The county is home to a number of tech-based companies, including aviation instrument makers and precision engineering manufacturers. Along these lines, the new statistics deliver good news. In terms of job growth in STEM fields, the metro area ranked 30th.

That's data that seems to make sense based on the hiring moves local companies are making. Tallevast cloud telephony company Star2Star is one of the fastest growing local STEM companies, having recently acquired $30 million in equity investment funding as it grows its workforce by a promised 350 people over the next five years. Lakewood Ranch-based Genius Central is also in growth mode, budgeting to add 30 employees to its web-based grocery stocking and incentives business.

If STEM job growth is hampered in Manatee County, it might have something to do with the area's comparatively low-tech profile. Seth Kardos, president of Bradenton digital surgical video company MedXChange, said the job postings he makes periodically for new software developers tend to elicit surprise among qualified applicants.

"There's not many opportunities in Sarasota and Bradenton for the jobs they're looking for," Kardos said. "Some folks are surprised that we've been here."

The area's best ranking in the survey came in the strength of its high school-based STEM programs. The region ranked second in the nation for "Highest STEM High Schools Index." Pam Craig, executive director of professional learning for Manatee County schools, said all Manatee high schools offer advanced placement courses. The district is emphasizing STEM education for its students because it is a key future industry.

"It has to be as we move forward," she said.

The area is also pushing STEM education at the college level. Humphrey said local post-secondary schools are offering more classes and programs for students in these fields.

"The schools are geared up to produce STEM graduates where they weren't before," he said.

WalletHub generated its list of top STEM performers using data from the Census Bureau, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Council for Community and Economic Research, Indeed, Stemconnector, U.S. News & World Report and its own research.

Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.