FloridaTrend.com, the Website for Florida Business

Not a Lot of Jobs, But the Right Jobs

Mark Howard,
Executive Editor

Our coverage of Florida’s regional economies in this issue includes boxes reflecting who’s hiring in each region. In highlighting those firms, we aren’t trying to pin a smiley face on a gloomy economy, or to be contrarian for its own sake. Times are indeed very tough. Part of our rationale was simply to see — given the relentlessly grim day-to-day coverage of Florida’s financials — who, if anybody, is still growing. And whether any kind of thread or theme might link those firms.

What emerges from the coverage is a sense that the battleships of Florida’s economy — construction, home sales and tourism, most obviously — may be dead in the water for the moment, but other newer, more agile craft are still making headway.

Notable is how much of the hiring involves either technical or higher-skill positions. In most places in Florida, medical personnel — from doctors to nurses and administrators — are in big demand. In Miami, a number of firms involved in international trade are still hiring. In Jacksonville, Deutsche Bank plans to hire 600 for a new financial center housing operational and support teams for the bank’s investment banking operations group. DAK Resources there is looking for engineers. In Boca Raton, a software firm is adding 60 jobs in software development and support. In Broward, a manufacturing firm will add 335 jobs and more than 100,000 square feet of manufacturing space in the next two years. In southwest Florida, tech-proficient employees are in demand at enterprises ranging from an internet marketing company to engineering firms. A Massachusetts nanotechnology firm is reportedly eyeing the region. Pre-stimulus defense spending is generating jobs in northwest Florida and other parts of the state, including central Florida, where a defense-related simulation company will add 100 jobs by 2011.

The number of new jobs is obviously not enough to stem the overall rise in unemployment, which as of this writing was moving toward 9% statewide. But the nature of the jobs is particularly noteworthy in the context of several other, larger-scale developments. Together, they hint at fundamental changes in Florida’s economy and may say more about the state’s economic prospects in 2010 than current statistics that indicate the recession’s shadow is lengthening.

First, Space Florida is proceeding, though not without political and media flak, with the development of spaceport operations at Cape Canaveral that are to include improvements at a launch complex the state now owns. An audit found the agency needs to complete its master plan and improve its business plan, but it also found that the agency had met most of its statutory requirements for creating partnerships with public and private universities and recruiting and retaining aerospace businesses.

Second, the state is making strides in alternate energy. Gainesville is experimenting with German-style subsidies to promote residential use of solar panels. The Florida Renewable Energy Producers Association held its second annual meeting last month. FPL has broken ground on a 75-megawatt generating facility that will be the world’s first hybrid solar energy plant and the first utility-scale solar facility in Florida, with some 180,000 mirrors over roughly 500 acres at FPL’s Martin Plant site. A 25-megawatt facility is slated for Polk County. Meanwhile, in Highlands County, a BP-Verenium partnership expects to break ground this year on a 36-million-gallon-per-year refinery that will convert grasses into ethanol. If completed as planned in 2012, the facility will be the first commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol facility.

Third, and perhaps most significant, a powerhouse innovation corridor is emerging from Tampa Bay through central Florida and down the southeastern coast, as life-science institutions like SRI, Burnham, Torrey Pines, Max Planck and Scripps Research Institute take shape in bricks and mortar. All those institutions have either broken ground or have
occupied new facilities, except for Max Planck, which plans to begin construction of its facility next year. Torrey Pines is up and running in its $40-million facility in Port St. Lucie in a 150-acre research park called the Florida Center for Innovation, which has also attracted the California-based Mann Research Center and the Oregon Health and Science University’s Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute. Scripps held a grand opening in February for its 350,000-sq.-ft. biomedical research facility in Jupiter. Meanwhile, at Lake Nona, just outside Orlando, a “medical city” is rising that may change central Florida’s economy even more than Disney has: A new UCF medical school, Burnham, a Nemours Foundation children’s hospital and a new Veterans Administration hospital will cluster on a 7,000- acre site. Alone, the medical city embodies the kind of critical mass of skills and resources that are textbook ingredients for transforming an economy.

All these developments still exist for now as a background hum, not a roar. The economy is still defined by the massive deleveraging associated with the real estate collapse — and the loss of jobs that wouldn’t have been created in the first place without the make-a-wish financing and fabricated, unsustainable demand that characterized the housing boom.

But I think there’s evidence that the state’s economy post-recession will begin to look different from Florida’s previous “three-legged stool” model. We may finally be on the way to an economy defined much less by real estate and retirees and much more by knowledge and innovation. Florida — no longer a low-cost state — will continue to draw people, but more will come for good jobs rather than sunshine and cheap land. Whether the state capitalizes on these developments will depend largely on the Legislature’s ability to solve the property insurance crisis and create a higher education system and tax system that are as sophisticated as the economy is becoming. And the state’s ability to avoid paving every centimeter of its natural assets as it grows.

For now, however, it’s enough to point out that there’s a good deal more afoot in Florida than suffering and waiting for the next wave in Florida’s old boom-bust cycle.

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