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Wanted: More Florida tech jobs

As rising costs erode some of Florida's traditional economic advantages, a new study suggests the state needs to embrace a more tech-heavy future.

Miami Herald - 12/5/2007 12:00:00 AM
by Jim Wyss

Florida needs to redouble its efforts to train, retain and recruit tech workers if its economic future hopes to live up to its economic past.

That's one of the findings of a 60-page study released Tuesday by the Florida Chamber Foundation that hopes to provide a road map for future development.

The study, titled New Cornerstone Revisited, paints a picture of an economy in transition.

''The strategy that got Florida where it is today was the strategy of being a low-cost state,'' said Mark Wilson, the incoming president of the Florida Chamber Foundation. But rising wages and a growing cost of living threaten traditional economic engines, such as tourism, agriculture and the service sector, he said. ``Florida is not going back to a low-cost state. And we need to make sure that the jobs we create will accommodate [the new] economy.''

The study -- which is a follow-up to a 2003 report -- shines a spotlight on some of the road blocks on Florida's path to attract high-paying tech jobs.

In particular, it raises red flags on education, investment and innovation.

While Florida is making strides in education, it's still a national laggard. The fourth-most-populated state in the nation, Florida ranks 34th in terms of per-capita graduation of students with advanced degrees and 40th in terms of bestowing science and engineering degrees at the doctorate level.

In addition, the state spends just 1 percent of its gross domestic product on research and development, compared to the national average of 2 percent.

Finally, the venture capital funds that are key to fueling tech start-ups have shunned the state. Florida ranks No. 13 in terms of capturing such funds, behind states such as Kentucky and New Jersey.

These indicators need to improve if Florida hopes to remain competitive, said Florida Chamber Foundation Executive Director Tony Carvajal.

''Our old models of growth will be a part of the future economy, but they cannot help us compete globally,'' Carvajal said. ``And having the technology alone will not do it; we have to have the people to work and develop the technology in the future.''

Florida is home to 6.1 percent of all U.S. high-tech companies and 276,000 high-tech jobs -- yet the study suggests they might not be the right kind of tech jobs.

''Florida's technology sector primarily is oriented toward production and support services, rather than to high-value-added activities related to research and innovation,'' the report said.

One symptom: the state's low patent rate. Florida ranks 31st in the nation in terms of new patents per worker, and output has been flat since 2000.

Maryann Fiala is the executive director of the Orlando-based American Electronics Association -- the nation's largest trade association for the tech industry.

Fiala said both large and small tech firms in South Florida are struggling to find skilled workers. She pointed to the recent decision of a Fort Lauderdale software company -- which she would not name -- to move its operations to Washington, D.C., because it couldn't fill 20 positions.

Those problems will only be exacerbated as skilled baby boomers retire in droves, she said. ''We have a looming crisis, and over the next five to 10 years, it's going to go beyond a crisis as baby boomers move out of the workforce,'' she said.

While Florida needs to overhaul the education system to produce more job-ready grads, that's a long-term proposition. ''In the short term, there are companies that need workers today -- and fixing the education system is not going to solve that problem,'' she said.

But the report also gives reason for cheer. Job growth, per capita income and worker productivity have all improved in recent years. And the state is uniquely positioned to thrive through trade with Latin America, the Caribbean and beyond.

Despite a recent slowdown in new arrivals, Florida's population is expected to double by 2060 and that is bound to fuel economic growth. But the quality of that growth will depend on how the new arrivals are handled. ''Rising costs and the negative impacts of strong population growth are raising questions about whether Florida's communities will remain livable,'' the study found.

''What's at stake over the coming years couldn't be higher: the growth and competitiveness of Florida's economy, the quality of life for its citizens, and the livability and sustainability of its communities,'' Carvajal said in a press release. ``Florida will need to prepare better and smarter for the next 10 million people than we did for the last 10 million people.''