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St. Pete 2.0: A post COVID-19 economy – and how colleges and universities can prepare

Megan Holmes

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Pinellas Technical College Welding program.

The St. Petersburg renaissance has been in full swing for more than a decade. We’ve excelled in many areas and struggled in others. In our series St. Pete 2.0, we’re partnering with the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership to explore what lies on the other side of our potential – what will it take to move to the “next level” as a city? Through this series, we’ll dig into specific topics with the hope that you, our thoughtful citizens, will share your insight, experience and wisdom. 

As the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on our economy, we put out a survey asking our readers to begin thinking about what a post COVID-19 economy would look like and how our higher education institutions could work with businesses to provide students with the skills needed in the local economy.

We used the forum of St. Pete 2.0 to take a snapshot of how work has changed, and how the future of work will change, in the face of COVID-19. We asked respondents to answer eight open-ended questions surrounding those topics, including how COVID-19 has changed the needs of employees, the skills needed to get the St. Petersburg economy back on track, business lessons learned, and the role of higher eduction. Here’s what we found:

Will COVID-19 change the way you do business?

This question triggered a resounding “yes” from respondents. In numerous industries, from commercial real estate, to higher education, to hiring, gig work, and B2B operations, respondents saw major changes coming for their sector of work.

Respondents from numerous industries said that meetings and hiring practices would change for the foreseeable future, if not forever, moving to remote options like phone and Zoom. The interview process is changing also, one respondent wrote, “face-to-face interviews don’t exist anymore.”

For real estate, one respondent said that changes would come both in unexpected and predictable ways, including a re-examination of office space, and the inclusion of more remote workers, thereby reducing office space needs. Gig workers noted that there would likely be more contract-based gig opportunities to bridge the “hiring gap” caused by COVID-19.

One respondent from a B2B hiring company explained that they were looking for alternative lines of business and the possibility of offering “a la carte” services, as hiring has been paused for many companies across the country. Another respondent, an entrepreneur, said COVID-19 “cemented my decision to work from home, maintain a mobile office and find clients online.”

 

How do you think COVID-19 will impact the future of your work (operations, sales, client relationships, services, deliverables or work practices, etc.)?

Almost every respondent said that the future of work will be more remote, and more web-based.

For the events industry, one respondent noted that large in-person events will likely be on hold for the foreseeable future, while smaller events are likely to be the norm.

For hiring and HR firms, one respondent said companies are more likely to bring these services in house, in an effort to reduce costs and take advantage of a “candidate-rich environment” caused by high unemployment. In higher education, one professional noted that the industry will likely see an uptick, as workers look to return to school to re-skill and up-skill.

Others pointed to larger systemic and societal changes, like rethinking organizational models to “place humans at the center,” rethinking global supply chains, which have broken down during COVID-19, and reexamining the norm of utilizing low-cost labor economies to manufacture.

But other respondents said that the behavior of certain communities and clients would also affect how they do business. One noted that clients and other businesses that refuse to wear masks and defy CDC guidelines will force them to change the way they work, in order to “avoid doing business with them instead of putting myself, my colleagues, other vendors, or other clients at risk.”

 

How do you foresee employee needs changing in coming years as a result of COVID-19?

Respondents to this question were split between technological needs and human-centered needs. Some respondents said employees will need better access to high-speed internet at home, virtual private network (VPN) systems and extended IT support.

Others explained that they see COVID-19 as a turning point, when higher salaries and living wages are more important than ever. “We are seeing the effects of not paying workers a living wage when the economy comes to an unexpected halt and the average worker has been surviving paycheck to paycheck,” one respondent wrote. “It’s a sudden and overwhelming strain on our safety net.”

“I think we’ll actually really need unions more than ever,” wrote another. “There’s literally no other way to protect yourself from an apathetic government or employer who sees you as replaceable because 10 other people who need a job, any job, are ready to replace you. I hope workers nationwide will stop taking this inhumane treatment and unionize.”

One respondent said that now is the time for “redesigning jobs to make them more meaningful and motivating, trying to build cultures of creativity and generosity in teams, or even trying to make entire organizations more productive.”

Other respondents emphasized the need for attainable health insurance, more flexibility and sick time, and proper personal protective equipment (PPE).

 

What skills could we use immediately to help St. Pete’s economy get back on track when it is safe to do so?

This question brought with it a variety of answers that were not always related to skills, but to practices, policies and programs that respondents saw as helpful to getting the local economy up to speed.

A few respondents called for the creation of a more self-sustaining community that is independent of global supply chains. That community should include “small and medium-scale manufacturers, local makers, and food cultivators,” one respondent explained. “We need to escape the chains of the global and interstate commerce system to generate sustainable wealth and make our community resilient to disasters.”

“Let’s put people back to work with infrastructure projects,” said another. “Some [with] public funding and some [with] public-private partnerships. Refer to the New Deal – with a twist.”

Other respondents pointed to communications as the essential skill for moving forward economically, including both oral and digital communication. Respondents said that these communication skills are likely to help customers feel safer and communicate the practices businesses are putting in place to keep consumers safe. They also noted that these skills would be useful for fundraising, digital marketing and helping businesses get online to maximize online sales.

Finally, one respondent pointed to the development of technical skills, such as mastering online bookkeeping, website development, keeping up customer relationship management systems and hosting webinars.

 

Are there business lessons you have learned from COVID-19 that will help you make better decisions in the future?

Numerous respondents from multiple industries indicated that they were learning many of the same lessons from COVID-19.

Flexibility was a major theme, including the ability to quickly pivot from in-office work to remote work in a matter of days, while still meeting client needs. Respondents also noted that companies with flexible work from home policies before the crisis were better prepared for the shift to remote work, both culturally and technologically.

Preparation was another major theme. One respondent called for increased planning for both viral infections and natural disasters like hurricanes, given St. Petersburg’s location. Another respondent pointed to the need for having a strong understanding of the business’ financial situation and saving financial reserves for up to one year, not just a few months.

Others emphasized the importance of building and maintaining relationships with local banks, something that paid off for many businesses when they applied for Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) funds that many small businesses without banking relationships did not receive.

“Keep expenses low and revenues high,” said another. “Trust your gut. Surround yourself with people who have a risk mindset and who are financially savvy. Never underestimate the power of your network and connections.”

 

Do you foresee a need for additional skills over the next three to five years that we can start planning to meet today?

This question brought about some of the most interesting answers for providing solutions to higher education institutions throughout Tampa Bay. Respondents pointed to a number of industries already targeted by St. Petersburg’s Grow Smarter plan, including specialized manufacturing, marine and life sciences, and financial services; as well as practical life skills and marketing/communications skills.

Specialized manufacturing

Respondents called for universities to provide students with more opportunities for building manufacturing-related skills. One respondent called for a “specific emphasis on advanced manufacturing techniques and an ecosystem to support new product development, entrepreneurship, innovation and commercialization.”

Another respondent called for more emphasis on 3D printing and small-scale machining.

Marine and life sciences

Many respondents mentioned healthcare workers and the skills involved in their work as some of the most important for the St. Pete – Tampa area, particularly as the region deals with an aging population. Multiple respondents called for skilled healthcare workers in long-term care facilities. Others called for nutritional experts helping to educate populations about the nexus of food and health. Still others called for self-sufficiency through local food cultivation.

One respondent said the region needs more marine scientists to ensure protection of water resources and the ability to combat science-related disasters like Red Tide.

Other skills

A number of other important skills were mentioned, pointing to some of the weaknesses or missing resources that respondents see in St. Petersburg. Multiple respondent called for infrastructure planning skills and mass transit planners to address both transportation and climate change.

Another respondent said construction expertise related to redevelopment was needed, particularly related to affordable and market-rate housing.

Still others called for “life skills” training, such as interviewing for a job, balancing a checkbook, financial responsibility and debt education. Those skills were mentioned alongside basic technical skills like teleconferencing, computer literacy, IT and web-based technology.

Finally, some respondents said digital content creation, social media, marketing, advertising and branding will be at the forefront of future business, and more students should be equipped with those real-world skills in order to meet the demand.

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