Jamal Sowell: Johnny comes marching home to opportunity

Published: Saturday, January 21, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 20, 2012 at 12:55 p.m.

As a sixth-generation Floridian, I attended college in Florida and then left the state to pursue my master's degree. I returned in January 2011 after serving several years in the U.S. Marine Corps with a combat tour in Afghanistan.

During my six-year absence, Floridians elected a new governor and new legislators, and the nation inherited new economic issues that left a plethora of my fellow veterans jobless.

According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, in 2011 veterans between the ages 18 and 24 had a 30.4 percent unemployment rate, almost double the 15.3 percent rate of non-veterans in the same age group.

As I look back on my first year out of the military, I recall countless business leaders, legislators, recent college graduates and educators discussing the need to come together as a community to brainstorm and find ways to create jobs in our great state.

Those conversations led to at least one concrete example of progress: On Jan. 11, the University of Florida held a dedication ceremony for the Florida Innovation Hub at UF; a super-incubator for startup companies whose technologies emanated from laboratories at UF and throughout the state. The mission is to provide tenant companies with the infrastructure, logistics and resources needed to run effectively and efficiently. Leaders hope to bring research discoveries to the marketplace and create additional jobs for Floridians.

I also recall a conversation with UF board of trustees Chairman Carlos Alfonso; he said it was always his dream to allow higher education to be the driver of the economic engine that creates more jobs and opportunities for Floridians, especially our veterans. Many others, including me, share Alfonso's vision. I believe the Florida Innovation Hub brings that vision closer to fruition.

The University of Central Florida, University of South Florida, Florida Gulf Coast University, and even private institutions such as the University of Miami and Nova Southeastern are all pursuing projects similar to the Florida Innovation Hub. All show a desire to tap the resources and talents of educational institutions to create jobs, provide a better educational environment and improve the quality of life for all people.

This type of cohesive effort has made me proud to come home to my native state of Florida and to know that there are opportunities for war veterans who aspire to return to the state after having served their country.

With the assistance of elected officials, educators, business people and citizens, we can all ensure that when Johnny and Jane come marching home, they will find job opportunities waiting for them.

Jamal Sowell is special assistant to the University of Florida president.

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