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Business Observer Friday, Dec. 19, 2003 18 years ago

High-Tech Turnaround

Florida now tops Massachusetts when it comes to the number of tech jobs. Will the trend continue?

High-Tech Turnaround

Florida now tops Massachusetts when it comes to the number of tech jobs. Will the trend continue?

By Cynthia Lane

Contributing Writer

Tampa Bay technology companies are riding a wave of optimism since learning that Florida moved from fifth to fourth nationwide in the number of high-tech jobs.

While it's impossible to reliably foretell the future, local industry watchers predict that new technology fortunes will be made in biotechnology, life sciences, broadband and wireless, and wireless encryption and encoding.

Among the confident is Bob Hanson, spokesman for the Suncoast Technology Alliance, a nonprofit organization established in 1997 that seeks to attract and retain high-technology businesses and skilled employees in Sarasota and Manatee counties.

The economy in the technology field is picking up, he says, adding that the application and development sectors are getting healthier. "We've always been a strong marketplace for broadband, and wireless capacity will be increasing," he says. "We'll soon see Sarasota become a broadband wireless community."

George Gordon, incoming president of the Tampa Bay Technology Forum and CEO of Tampa's Enporion, a supply chain services company serving gas and electric utilities, is also optimistic. "I think we're starting to see a turnaround," he says.

Still, there are "significant deficiencies" in the area's tech sector, Gordon says, with no large software or telecommunications technology businesses. To boost the local economy, the forum is producing its first Technology Transfer Conference May 17-18, which will feature a dozen of Florida's college and university research arms showcasing new talent. The forum is a trade association dedicated to growing Tampa Bay area technology businesses and promoting the region as a major center of entrepreneurship and innovation.

Clues to the direction of technological innovations lie in federal government's spending, Gordon says, primarily in the areas of homeland security and protection of data, including wireless encryption and encoding.

It's also important to look at where venture capital firms are investing their money. Hot new companies include broadband wireless, satellite radio and biotech firms, says Jason Broom, partner of Startup Florida in Sarasota, a private-sector incubator and venture capital firm.

Broom says. "You won't see another bubble like in the late '90s, and venture groups won't take as many risks on unproven business ideas, but it's not going to stop."

Reports that up to 75% of venture groups could shut down within five years are in reference to huge investors, but don't apply to firms such as Startup Florida that invest $250,000 to $500,000 at a time, Broom says.

"Florida's venture game is a little fragmented because there's not really one great center of commerce," Broom adds. But Startup Florida is wooing out-of-state firms, primarily from California, trying to get them to relocate to Sarasota in hopes of creating such a center.

The lack of a geographical technology core is a problem, agrees Michaela Platzer, vice president of research for the American Electronics Association (AeA), a high-tech trade association that produced the annual "Cyberstates 2003: A State-by-State Overview of the High-Technology Industry." The analysis shows that the top five technology states all lost high-tech jobs in 2002, but Florida lost the fewest.

Florida lost only 5% of its tech jobs, leaving 271,000 jobs, compared to fifth-place Massachusetts, which lost 13% of its tech jobs, leaving 256,000 jobs, according to the report, which is based on U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics information. California, the top state, lost 11% of its tech work force, leaving 995,000 jobs. Texas, in the No. 2 slot, also lost 11%, leaving 479,000 jobs, while New York, in third place, lost 8% of its high-tech jobs, leaving 330,000 jobs.

Florida's boost in the rankings is surprising to many outside the state, Platzer says. "Florida is known for many other things, but technology is not one of them." But the state is gaining national recognition for its top three tech specialties - telecommunications services, computer systems design and engineering services, she says. Florida is third in the country in telecommunications services, with 73,000 jobs, and it's fourth in engineering services (43,400 jobs), Internet services (26,000 jobs) and communications equipment manufacturing (14,300 jobs) according to the report.

Nationally, the report shows that high-tech employment fell by 540,000 jobs to 6 million in 2002. "But fewer jobs were lost in 2002-03 than 2001-02, so that's an indication that the trend is turning around," says Platzer, adding that high-tech jobs increased nationwide through 2003.

It's too soon to tell whether the national trend will be duplicated in Florida, she says. "But there are a lot of encouraging signs on the horizon."

Still, AeA reports that venture capital investments in Florida were down to $357 million in 2002 from $784 million in 2001. Research and development expenditures in Florida in 2000 were $4.7 billion, making the state 15th in the nation.

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