Sunday, June 24, 2018

We need more than 'jobs'

Not all jobs are created equal. And not all outlooks on this state's economy are the same.

That's why it's too bad that Florida Gov. Rick Scott and Tallahassee's leadership choose to view the progress of Florida's economic health through rose-colored glasses and with mutual congratulatory pats on the back.

It once made a clever sound bite to say that any job is a good job in a state economy still clawing out of a bad recession. Now that pitch has grown stale. Just because the unemployment rate is falling faster here than in many other states is no guarantee the Sunshine State is building the critical base of 21st century jobs based on higher skills and better pay.

Besides, the state's fast-falling jobless rate is misleading.

The state unemployment rate fell 3.2 percentage points — from 9.4 to 6.2 percent — between December 2011 and 2013. Had the participation rate — the percentage of Floridians officially looking for work — held steady over that two-year period, the unemployment rate would have been 7.9 percent. Just last month, the Florida Legislature Office of Economic and Demographic Research concluded: "53.1 percent of the drop in the unemployment rate is due to people dropping out of the labor force or delaying entrance."

As global competition grows, Florida's future may be threatened by a simplistic political message. Yes, more jobs beats fewer jobs. But not if the bulk of job openings are for waiters, motel maids, nursing home aides and part-time workers earning less than $10 an hour.

Unchecked, the threat of such a narrow strategy to Florida is twofold.

It accelerates the hollowing out of the state's middle class, already aggravated by a devastating recession and a burst housing bubble still under repair. And it fuels a dreaded brain drain in Florida, especially of younger, better educated talent. They are wary that a falling unemployment rate driven by jobs with mediocre wages cannot translate into good career opportunities.

"The biggest issue facing the American economy, and our political system, is the gradual descent of the middle class into proletarian status," demographics expert and Forbes commentator Joel Kotkin wrote last month. "This process, which has been going on intermittently since the 1970s, has worsened considerably over the past five years, and threatens to turn this century into one marked by downward mobility."

Will that be Florida's fate? Florida is especially vulnerable to this descent, just as it overtakes New York as the country's third most populous state.

These unfortunate trends are hardly unique to Florida. But they will metastasize faster here due to an apparent lack of will among our leadership to address them.

Scott, who is extremely wealthy, has chosen to benchmark the success of his economic policies and performance by relying heavily on one annual survey. Chief Executive, a niche magazine with a circulation under 50,000, publishes a survey each May measuring the "best" and "worst" states for business. In recent years Florida has landed impressively high, at No. 2 behind No. 1 Texas. It's telling that this survey is based on the responses of CEOs.

Facing re-election this fall, Scott has cited this optimistic measure over the years as evidence his platform of cutting business taxes and adding jobs is a winner. What Scott chooses to overlook are the volumes of more sophisticated and often less flattering surveys comparing Florida's economic qualities to other U.S. states. Among them:

• Florida ranked a lowly 30th in CNBC's 2013 "America's Top States For Business" survey, which measures 10 categories, from "cost of doing business" to "business friendliness." (South Dakota ranked tops, Hawaii last.)

• Florida ranked a middle-of-the-pack 22nd in Forbes magazine's 2013 "Best States For Businesses and Careers" survey that analyzed seven categories ranging from "labor supply" to "regulatory environment." (Virginia ranked tops, Maine last.)

• Florida ranked 13th in Site Selection magazine's 2013 "Top State Business Climate" survey. That's a higher spot than in some other surveys but still well behind No. 1 Georgia, No. 2 North Carolina and No. 3 Texas. The survey is based on feedback from investors in corporate facilities.

Economic development leaders in Florida are aware of these more in-depth and less pandering surveys. Numerous reports from chambers of commerce across the state urge more economic resources to support "clusters" in biotech, marine science, technology, health care and even manufacturing. Those kinds of jobs will boost the state's competitiveness, generate better-paying jobs and attract stronger talent.

At the heart of the matter is whether Tallahassee is really listening. Other states like Colorado, Virginia and Washington are pushing broader policies that promote not only these 21st century jobs but the educational quality to help sustain them.

A Tallahassee message so dependent on minimizing taxes will not solve Florida's more persistent challenges that range from weak and stagnant wages, middle class slippage and poorly paid public school teachers to unresolved property and flood insurance problems that threaten Florida's housing markets.

Surely the ultimate goal is not to become a banana republic built on jobs that can't support a middle class life for many.

Robert Trigaux is a business columnist for the Times. Reach him at [email protected]

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