The Sunshine Economy: Work & Wages

Nov 10, 2014

Social worker Lionel Lightbourne works for a non-profit in Liberty City. He says he makes a "doable living."
Credit Tom Hudson

Lionel Lightbourne has been a social worker in Liberty City for four years. He says he is a "fish in water" with his chosen profession. He speaks with passion about empowering families and children in need.

If he were single, he says his income would put him just above the poverty line. "But together with my wife," he says, "we will actually be in the middle class."

Florida's average middle class worker isn't getting paid any more money than workers 10 years ago. The average Floridian's annual pay remains below the national average. And the average annual pay in the four South Florida counties remains below the state average.  

All this comes from federal government data crunched by the University of Florida's Bureau of Economic and Business Research. Lining up the past decade of annual pay and comparing South Florida to the entire state and the rest of the nation looks like this:

The national wage is on top. Monroe County's average pay is on the bottom. The average pay in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties is within about $2,500 of each other. Adjusted for inflation, the average worker has not gotten a raise in 10 years.

Christ McCarty, director of UF's Bureau of Economic and Business Research, says this is not unique to Florida.

"There have been some increases in pay but it tends to be among higher-paid workers. If you have the benefit of being in one of those occupations where you tended to get paid a high wage you probably do have a better wage than you did 10 years ago. Otherwise it is the same or worse."

Floridians heard a lot about the rebounding job market during this fall's election. Governor Scott built his successful re-election campaign around his motto of "Let's Keep Working."  Election night he made this pledge in his victory speech:

Andy Haraldson left his good-paying job in a growing industry to return to the classroom. Since 2009, Haraldson had been driving semi trucks for a Delray Beach-based farm. He would leave South Florida loaded with fresh cut vegetables bound for Buffalo, NY, or other points north.  In the summer, he would turn around and bring back a load of northern-grown produce.  In the winter he would delivery rolls of a paper to a printing plant in Boynton Beach.  

Within a couple of years he reports he was making around $60,000, a 30-percent jump from when he got back in the trucking and transportation industry at the height of the Great Recession. Along with his wife's salary as a consultant, their household income was in the six figures. 

But then Haraldson quit. He wound up back in school, both as an adjunct at a local community college and as a master's student. He hopes to finish his second master's degree in 2015. Then he wants to get an assistance professorship at a local college or university. Here's how he explains his prospects:

Haraldson left one industry with steady job growth and growing pay (transportation) in South Florida for another occupation that has continued to demand workers (education). As Florida's population has grown so has its employment base. That's to be expected, especially in a service-oriented economy like Florida's. The highest job growth rates year over year consistently are construction and leisure/hospitality. 

Credit Univ. of FL, BEBR

"We just can't forever rely on people moving to Florida and building homes for them," says UF's McCarty. He, Dick Clark of the Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce's Council of Economic Advisors, and others point to biotechnology, technology and medical tourism as industries for Florida to develop a more diverse job market. And those fields traditionally have been at the higher end of the income scale.

"Where we get more competition is in the higher-end industries," says Clark, "like biotech, manufacturing and even in some of the service sectors where talent is particularly hard to find as that industry grows."

That war on talent, Clark contends, is driving up incomes in those fields. Those industries remain small contributors to the employment opportunities in South Florida.