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Florida's tech plate full (sort of)

A jobs report, which unabashedly cheers the state's progress, offers more sobering morsels on closer review.

A report issued Wednesday paints a rosy picture of the high-tech employment situation in Florida.

. . . and in Alaska, Indiana and every other state in the union.

Cyberstates, published annually by the American Electronics Association and partly funded by the Nasdaq Stock Market, found that Florida ranked sixth nationwide in high-tech jobs in 1998, seventh in the number of high-tech jobs added between 1993 and 1998, and 11th in venture-capital investments in 1999.

"The Sunshine State is also one of the nation's most important high-tech states," Ellen Caravello, president of high-tech manufacturer Waymark Corp. in Boca Raton and chairwoman of the AEA's Florida Council, said in a news release customized for Florida consumption.

True enough. But Florida's significance has more to do with its size _ it is the fourth most-populous state _ than with its high-tech vitality. Population-adjusted data in the trade group's report make that clear.

Take Florida's job growth. Between 1993 and 1998, Florida added 40,100 high-tech jobs to reach nearly 210,000, according to the report. The growth was sufficient to keep it the nation's sixth-largest high-tech employer.

But percentagewise, Florida's growth rate ranked 28th. For example, high-tech jobs in neighboring Georgia grew twice as fast during that period, 48 percent versus 24 percent.

As for wages, the average high-tech worker earned about $46,100 in 1998 in Florida, placing it 29th among states. That's about $21,000 less than the average worker earned in California. The report included manufacturers, communications firms, and software and computer-related companies in its definition of "high tech." Biotech companies and certain other industry sectors were excluded.

Florida wasn't the only state burnished by the AEA's public relations lathe. Even Indiana, which suffered a 7 percent decline in high-tech jobs from 1993 to 1998, worst in the country, received three cheers from the 3,000-member trade group.

"Cyberstates data show that Indiana is a serious player in high technology," the AEA said in a separate press release.

"Even though there's a job decline from 1993 to 1998, it's back on the upswing," said Larry Kwolek, executive director of AEA's Midwest Council. A glance at the report reveals that the number of high-tech jobs in Indiana did indeed rise from 1997 to 1998 _ by two-tenths of a percentage point.

Despite its relentless emphasis on the positive, the new report provides an abundance of useful and objective raw data.

Though Florida ranked sixth in the total number of high-tech jobs, its ranking by subsector ranged from third (electromedical equipment) to 18th (industrial electronics, computers and office equipment). Its ranking in communications equipment and services jobs was fourth, while in defense electronics and data processing the state ranked fifth.

Investment in Florida firms, a key predictor of future job growth, was a mixed bag.

The amount of venture capital invested in Florida's 9,027 high-tech establishments doubled to $726-million between 1997 and 1999. But venture capital investments tripled nationwide.

Similarly, research-and-development expenditures in Florida rose 36 percent between 1993 and 1997, reaching $326 per person. That still left Florida near the bottom third of all states in terms of R&D spending.

Ken Wieand, director of the University of South Florida's Center for Economic Development Research, said certain data in the AEA's report should be taken with a grain of salt. For example, though high-tech jobs typically pay less in Florida than they do in California, the cost of living here is considerably cheaper.

Wieand also said the report relies on an outdated system of classifying jobs. As a result, he said, some truly "high-tech" jobs are excluded from the count, while certain low-tech jobs are included. The AEA acknowledged such deficiencies in the report's methodology section.

At least one bay area observer considered the report good news.

Michael Kovac, director of high-technology development at USF, said Florida is less than 10,000 jobs short of leapfrogging Massachusetts and Illinois to move into fourth place in the high-tech rankings. Given Florida's focus on tourism, he said, it's "pretty remarkable" the state is doing so well in this regard.

"I think the trumpet should blare that Florida is a high-tech state," he said. "Y'all come."

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