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January 09, 2024 Aundra Wallace: Workforce development, education key to region's economic growth

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Bolstering Northeast Florida’s education system is critical for maintaining the flow of new employers into the region, the head of JAXUSA Partnership told a business group Jan. 9. 

And that includes adding the proposed University of Florida graduate campus in Downtown Jacksonville.

Speaking to the Jacksonville Business Professionals group at Fogo de Chão in Town Center, JAXUSA President Aundra Wallace said maintaining a highly trained, well-educated workforce was critical to his organization’s efforts to attract economic development.

“If you don’t have the workforce skills and the availability of that workforce at a cost that makes you competitive, you do not have companies taking a look at your region,” Wallace said.

“That’s why you see us having more gains, because we spend a great deal of time focusing on K-12 as well as postsecondary education.” 

The region is coming off of a record year in which the JAX Chamber and JAXUSA, the chamber’s regional economic development arm, helped attract $1.87 billion in promised investment. 

Top development projects that were announced last year included the $750 million Plant-AS hydroponics plant in Baker County; the $270 million Cosentino plant that will be the Spanish countertop manufacturer’s first U.S. manufacturing facility; and the $235 million expansion of wallboard manufacturer CertainTeed in Baker County. 

Wallace said JAXUSA’s efforts in supporting workforce developments included holding a 2021 virtual meeting in which the superintendents of all seven regional school districts met for the first time to discuss the topic. 

The message of that call, he said, was that “it is no longer acceptable for children to graduate and come across the stage and get a diploma when they do not have the skills to get some type of meaningful employment in this economic development system.”

As for higher education, Wallace said the UF campus would fill two needs for Jacksonville. 

It would supply the community with a top-rated research institution – something that only Jacksonville and Charlotte, North Carolina, lack among the top 50 U.S. metros, according to Wallace.

It would also ostensibly lead to more high-end graduates from UF starting their careers in Jacksonville. Wallace said only 5.5% of graduates from UF and Florida State University enter the workforce in Jacksonville after receiving their diplomas.

Plans were announced in February 2023 for UF to establish a health and financial technology graduate center in Jacksonville. Since then, the school has drawn $125 million in state and local funding commitments from government sources plus at least $62 million in private funding.

At least three potential Downtown area sites for the campus are known to be in consideration: the Greater Jacksonville Agricultural Fairgrounds; near Florida State College at Jacksonville’s Downtown campus; and near the Jacksonville Transportation Authority headquarters. 

Article written by Ric Anderson

Jacksonville Daily Record