Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Opinion

Build a bigger, better economy as Florida turns 500

Florida is about to turn 500; in 2013 it will be half a millennium since Spanish explorers made first contact with the native Timucua. And while the commemoration will be important up and down the state, those Floridians who focus on trade and the economy are looking for the best possible anniversary — new, smart and sustainable economic growth.

Because, as Florida turns 500, automation is coming. Automation is the business world's replacement of high-salary workers with robotic and artificial intelligence technologies.

Automation is an irresistible force for business owners and innovators. Automation will reduce existing jobs. Florida needs to replace the jobs that will be lost to automation with new industries, and fast.

With the announcement that FoxConn, the giant Asian assembler of the iPhone, will replace 1 million workers with newly built assembly robots, the trend has begun, and plans are afoot to similarly streamline the expenses of everything from garment manufacturing (no more seamstresses or fabric cutters) to transportation (Google has already built the driverless car; coming soon, the driverless taxi), to medicine and education (think of a single teacher or consulting physician educating or treating you and thousands of others remotely, over a lifelike video screen).

Florida will in the coming years lose thousands, maybe tens of thousands, or perhaps hundreds of thousands of income-providing jobs to automation. Florida's structural long-term unemployment rate will get larger as these jobs disappear. To counter this, Florida needs to create new jobs that are immune to elimination through automation, that complement a new world running on automation.

What kinds of new jobs should Floridians pitch in to build, and as an anniversary gift to our home of Florida, how can we get started on them?

Jobs in high-profit, site-processed agriculture. Machines will someday replace any human involvement in the harvesting of food crops like corn or the growing of landscaping products like sod. But the wineries in Napa and Sonoma, Calif., won't be replacing their artisan growers and winemakers anytime soon.

It remains to be proved that Florida soils can produce great wine, but there is no question that farming in Florida can be reoriented to duplicate what California wineries do — grow high-mark-up agricultural goods, and then make them more profitable by processing them on-site. Florida's formula for these future jobs in artisanal Ag may involve anything from avocados, to heirloom hams, to small-batch rum, to something we've not yet heard of. Florida is fecund, blessed with a gigantic amount of farmable soil — things grow here, and grow big. There are jobs and profits in our soil. With planning and some private and public cooperation, we can grow new robot-proofed jobs on the farm.

Jobs in chemistry and engineering. As far as we know, automation cannot invent, it can only do things faster. So while the warehouse jobs at Amazon's fulfillment centers are about to be automated out of existence, the goods Amazon sells must be dreamed up, planned, and built by people. Invention and innovation are highly profitable and automation-proof activities, and by the numbers, most invention and innovation leading to sellable products arise from the work of chemists and engineers. With a population nearing 20 million and an enviable starting platform of large, research-ready state universities, Florida is naturally poised to produce unfolding new generations of working chemists and engineers.

Jobs channeling craftsmanship. What do a high-end boat made in Stuart and a Swiss watch have in common? Their alluring forms are both built by the hands of master craftsmen, forms that cannot be fabricated by ought but the practiced human eye. In an era of automation and hyper mass production, craftsmanship remains a stubbornly important source of jobs and revenues because of two elusive qualities it imparts to craftsmen-produced goods: quality and function. From beds to books to ball caps, handmade goods offering both quality and function will succeed, and the jobs they create will survive.

Much longer lists can be made of new jobs that Floridians can realistically create, train for, fill and keep. The faster we as a state populace begin in defining viable new jobs and directing our energies toward the making of them, the more prosperity we will share as the old jobs disappear. As Florida turns 500, what better gift is there than to build a bigger, better Florida economy?

Michael Cavendish is a member of Leadership Florida and a corporate trial lawyer with Gunster. He is currently writing an online journal on life in Florida, acrossflorida.org. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

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