A dozen years ago I got a phone call from an ambitious fellow in California weighing a job offer at Clearwater's Tech Data Corp., a major technology distributor and a dynamic public corporation.
Before committing, the caller thought it best to ask a business reporter how much bench strength Tampa Bay boasted in tech companies. Why? To be reassured, should he part ways with Tech Data, that other opportunities existed here that offered quality tech jobs and comparable pay.
His concern then is even more critical now to this region. Talent is a lot easier to recruit from afar or train locally when there are concentrations of businesses — be they tech companies, financial institutions or health care organizations. They can support each other and, together, sustain a substantial pool of skilled workers with similar pay and career expectations.
In other words, Tampa Bay's economy can become much more robust with "industry clusters" of like companies. Building a specific group of industry clusters to raise Tampa Bay's pay scale will demand a better trained work force.
That is exactly the goal of our regional economic developers at the start of 2011.
Of course, that's the same premise of better jobs and more competitive regional economies pursued by many metro areas. In recent weeks, Pittsburgh's talked of pursuing a water industry cluster. Milwaukee's bragging about a creative services cluster. And Denver's all about a clean-tech cluster.
And this isn't just an American trend. Toronto's abuzz about a new urban transportation cluster. Even Dongyang in China is excited about building a knitted underwear garment cluster.
Our cluster obsession coincides, of course, with one of the worst economic cycles in modern Florida history.
The latest and sobering jobless rates for Florida and Tampa Bay were made public Friday. Statewide, the unemployment rate remained stubbornly high at 12 percent — bad enough compared to the nation's too-high 9.4 percent rate. Tampa Bay's metrowide jobless rate actually fell from a painful 12.7 percent in November to 12 percent last month. Better. But not much.
Tampa Bay economic leaders want the region to come out of the recession not with a business-as-usual attitude but poised to support six better-paying clusters.
Two groups leading the regional charge, the Tampa Bay Partnership and the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council, hired SRI International and consultant Lynne Manrique to help identify those six clusters and move the process along.
But will it work? Critical to the success of this strategy is building a work force with the technology, scientific and math skills and work ethic to be the labor pool for these clusters. Regional work force boards, the University of South Florida, the major community colleges and vocational programs finally are starting to coordinate what skills they teach with the coming demand of these six clusters.
It could prove tricky. Churning out medical technicians or electronics designers ahead of demand will merely force local talent to find work elsewhere. But failing to feed the job demands of industry clusters can stall growth or discourage cluster companies from expanding here.
At the Tampa Bay Partnership, CEO Stu Rogel and business intelligence officer Dave Sobush suggest the geographic size of this metro region is just about right for encouraging clusters. The region is not too big, as an entire state might be, or too little, as one city might be, for clusters to prosper.
At Progress Energy Florida, CEO Vinny Dolan has been tasked by the Tampa Bay Partnership with making something concrete happen with the so-called "blueprint for regional economic development." Dolan's big focus is accountability.
"I'm a big believer you do not have a plan until it is written down," he says. "Then you can make things happen."
Part of that plan is to communicate Tampa Bay's cluster plan. On Tuesday, partnership officials will brief the Senate Commerce & Tourism Committee in Tallahassee. Similar briefings will occur in the House and with Florida Gov. Rick Scott.
Dolan cautions folks impatient over a slack Florida recovery that nurturing clusters, educating a work force, aligning the incentives and then carefully encouraging those ingredients will take time.
"We're not talking six months, but five to 10 years," Dolan explains.
In its advisory role, SRI says a key element of making specific industry clusters take hold will be marketing a brand new message for the Tampa Bay region.
The idea is to "convey to outside audiences a more unified vision of the Tampa Bay region as a well rounded, diversified place to live and do business," SRI states in one draft report on cluster strategy.
Can this happen? Or, as some critics wonder, is this another zero-sum business recruitment game in which Tampa Bay bolsters parts of its economy at the expense of others?
It's sure trendy. Regional cluster building is in vogue globally and is heavily encouraged not only by SRI but by other brainy consulting firms like Brookings.
The underlying promise of clusters is that they act as economic growth "multipliers." Bolstered by favorable taxes and other incentives, like companies can support each other, attract larger skilled work forces and encourage new businesses, spinoffs and startups to flourish.
Even SRI acknowledges Tampa Bay has its own set of hurdles to overcome. SRI even generated its own list of Tampa Bay's regional assets and the challenges confronting the region.
Naysayers might look at the list and say we're too balkanized, lack critical mass, are too old and just too distracted by sunny beaches to do the hard work to make industry clusters succeed.
Maybe. But at this can-do stage of cluster building, I'd say Tampa Bay's at least got a good shot at making its economy a real regional contender.
Contact Robert Trigaux at email@example.com or (727) 893-8405.