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Wage-earners work harder just to keep up

Dave and Vickie Springer have had stable jobs through much of the past decade. He works for the Pinellas County roads department; she's a preschool teacher who sells Avon products on the side.

They're not big spenders. They don't have kids. They live in a modest, one-story house in St. Petersburg that needs a new porch roof.

So why, they wonder, does it feel like they're treading water and can't seem to save money?

"If you live, it costs," Dave Springer said one recent evening after he had finished paying a stack of bills, leaving about $20 in his checking account.

Like many Floridians, the Springers may find their economic angst is rooted not in what they spend but in what they earn.

Ten years ago, the typical Floridian's disposable income was 3 percent higher than the national average. Today that income is slightly less than the national norm.

A similar slump occurred in median household income. The average Florida household earned about $35,081 in 1999, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics.

While that's up from $27,416 in 1990, it's a disappointment compared with the performance of other states during such a prosperous decade. Florida tumbled from being the state with the 33rd-highest household income to 40th.

To be sure, there is still ample wealth in Florida. The number of millionaire households has surged in certain pockets of the state, drawing private bankers such as Chicago-based Northern Trust to target the high net worth prospects.

But much of that wealth is driven by transplanted retirees. The average Florida worker earned $28,622 in 1999, up from $20,216 in 1989. That's a growth rate of about 4 percent a year, barely outpacing inflation.

With 1.6-million new jobs created since 1990, Florida has certainly not struggled to create work for the influx of new residents. The issue is the quality of those jobs.

When the Florida Chamber of Commerce drafted a plan for economic growth in 1989, state leaders set a goal of creating jobs that paid wages at least 20 percent higher than the average Florida wages at the time. Some higher-paying jobs were created, particularly in the tech industry, but it wasn't enough to significantly boost overall state wages.

Among the success stories is Unaxis, a St. Petersburg maker of equipment used to make semiconductors.

Ed Richards, Unaxis' chief technical officer, has been with the company, formerly known as Plasma-Therm, since it relocated from New Jersey to St. Petersburg in 1990.

Over the years, Richards has had no trouble using sunshine, among other incentives, to lure recruits to Florida. Finding technologically trained prospects inside the state has been tougher.

"We would if we could, but the talent really isn't here," he says.

The average pay for Unaxis' 250 employees _ somewhere north of $50,000 _ is far from the norm in the bay area. You don't have to search far for anecdotes on the other end of the pay scale.

Without a college degree, "you're not going to get anywhere," says Linda Collins, a 49-year-old single mother of three from Pinellas Park. "Psychologically, you're not treated very well. You're treated like, "Why didn't you finish school? What's wrong with you that you didn't finish school?' You don't like going to the store with food stamps and to the doctor with Medicaid."

Collins works as a para-professional aide in the Pinellas County school system and expects to graduate this spring from Eckerd College with a degree in human development.

"I know I'll make a better income next year, about three times as much," she says.

Mary Farri, who moved to Tampa from Missouri in the fall of 1990, considers herself lucky.

She and her husband, Jim, had already saved a substantial amount before heading south so she had the luxury of working part-time jobs as a bank teller, accountant and bookkeeper.

Farri noted that the starting salary for one of her first jobs in the area, that of a bank teller, hasn't grown much since 1991.

"So many jobs in Florida are tourism-oriented. They're retail. They're service positions," she says. "Even with the tech growth down here, they're mainly telemarketing customer-service jobs that tend to be a lower pay scale."

For many families, the only solution has been for both spouses to work.

The Springers, for example, have a combined salary of about $40,000 a year. One factor holding them back, they say, is the size of their annual pay increases.

In Vickie's last pre-school teaching job, she found that certification and 20 years of on-the-job training weren't enough to guarantee strong annual raises. After four years, she was making about $9.50 an hour, about 75 cents an hour more than newly recruited high school graduates who had not yet taken continuing education to get certified.

After 18 years of marriage, Dave and Vickie have refined their respective monetary duties. He makes the house payments, pays utilities and insurance and keeps up both vehicles. She handles shopping for food and clothes.

The two are not without some fruits for their labor. They have an 8-year-old sailboat. They often travel on weekends, using a camper they bought last year that costs them $80 a month.

One of their attempts to create a nest egg _ an $800 investment in the stock market _ fizzled along with the economy. The account is now worth about $400.

Dave, 51 and Vickie, 43, figure they have several years to build on savings before retirement. But it isn't easy.

Every month, they set aside about $50 in a savings account, but that winds up going to cover insurance or taxes whenever those bills come due.

"It takes two salaries just to bring you even," Dave says.

"Considering the times," he adds, "I think we're a little behind."

_ Jeff Harrington can be reached at harringtonsptimes.com or (813) 226-3407. Times staff writer Curtis Krueger contributed to this report.

Research

Funds for research & development (in millions of dollars)

FLORIDA

1990 2000

11th 13th

($3,375) ($4,773)

NATIONAL TOTAL

1990 2000

($140,486) ($226,984)

Income

Disposable personal income

FLORIDA

1990 1999

16th 19th

($20,707) ($23,141)

NATIONAL TOTAL

1990 1999

($20,023) ($23,233)

Richard Dey, a test technician at Unaxis in St. Petersburg, holds one of the better-paying jobs brought to the state in the past decade. But most job growth has been on the other end of the spectrum.

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