Are tech firms helping to create jobs for the rest of us?


Brett Sharkey, office manager, left, and Bryan Weschler, co-founder, with 2 College Brothers moving company, work at the Santa Fe College Center for Innovation and Economic Development (CIED) on Friday, August 9, 2013 in Gainesville. 2 College Brothers is an incubating company at CIED.

(Matt Stamey/Staff photographer)
Published: Wednesday, August 14, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, August 13, 2013 at 7:58 p.m.

All the attention on software firms moving to Innovation Square and downtown student tech startups has left some to wonder: What about creating jobs for everyone else?

During last fall's campaign for the Gainesville City Commission, Ed Braddy, now mayor, said the innovation economy is "not accessible to all" and that he would promote jobs for everyone.

Yvonne Hinson-Rawls, the eventual winner of the District 1 seat representing east Gainesville, spoke of an income gap in Gainesville and the need to create jobs and training opportunities, "particularly for young black men" with a high dropout rate.

Economic development officials have been trying to create jobs for everyone but are now redoubling their efforts to be more inclusive, said Tim Giuliani, president and CEO of the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce.

"From GED to Ph.D." are the new buzzwords for job-creation efforts at the Chamber and at meetings held by the Plum Creek Timber Company to plan development of Plum Creek's land in eastern Alachua County.

At the same time, economic development officials argue that the investment in new tech jobs has a payoff in creating even more jobs in the broad service sector as tech workers spend their money on housing, food and other services.

Recruitment efforts such as India-based Mindtree's announcement last year that it would create more than 400 jobs in Gainesville bring attention "all over the world" to Gainesville, Giuliani said, but the Chamber spends more effort on retention and expansion of existing businesses and supporting new businesses.

"The recruitment part gets all of the press, but we do spend the least amount of time and resources and energy on that," Giuliani said. "It's just what plays. It's a headline waiting to happen."

On the other hand, helping companies expand gets less attention, while efforts to help retain a company thinking about leaving are often confidential, he said.

Giuliani pointed out that the Chamber worked with Butler Enterprises through the process of its northern expansion plans for Butler Plaza, which Butler estimated will create 3,300 jobs, most of those in service industries.

Giuliani conceded that one challenge in Gainesville is that many service jobs go to college students.

Innovation Gainesville, the Chamber's economic development plan, has focused on growing information technology and biotech clusters in particular, because those are the sectors growing globally and the assets available that give the area a competitive advantage because of the presence of the University of Florida, Giuliani said.

Now the Chamber is in the process of updating Innovation Gainesville to benefit more people.

That includes public policy initiatives, such as advocating public transportation routes and schedules that connect areas with service jobs to the people who need them.

The Chamber said it plans to get more involved in education so students are prepared for available jobs.

The Chamber also is working with Plum Creek on the job-creation part of its development plans to create opportunities between east Gainesville and Hawthorne, and hopefully shift some of the opportunities that have expanded westward over the years back toward the east, Giuliani said.

Hinson-Rawls said she thinks the community support that existed for east Gainesville when she was growing up went away but is starting to come back again.

At Monday's strategic planning meeting, at which commissioners discuss their priorities, she said she was heartened that every commissioner mentioned economic development on the east side.

"By the time they got to me, I was almost in tears because I (used to be) like the Lone Ranger in this effort," she said.

Her priority is to offer vocational education training to prepare everyone for high-tech jobs and overcome the income gap she said has left so many of her constituents behind.

"I believe that gap has to do with the way we've been preparing children for the FCAT instead of preparing them for life," said the former elementary school principal.

Braddy worked with the Chamber to host a summit on how the city can help small businesses. Out of that, the Chamber issued several recommendations, including some that Braddy said would make it easier for people to start their own companies, such as creating a website with all of the information someone needs to start a business, lowering regulatory costs and responding faster to permit applications so a business can get up and running.

Braddy said he is not opposed to trying to recruit more "nonglamorous" job creators but insisted Gainesville has enough talent to grow its own businesses.

"We can grow a lot of entrepreneurs here in Gainesville that appeal to all levels of employment, all industries and sectors, and I think we can do fine just trying to build that," he said.

Braddy pointed out that there are services to help people of different backgrounds, such as one to help minority businesses bid on city contracts and Santa Fe College's Center for Innovation and Economic Development.

The CIED entrepreneur incubator opened in 2009 at the downtown Santa Fe campus as an alternative to the tech incubators.

"We were looking to help everybody else," said Bill Dorman, entrepreneur in residence who coaches startup companies. "We've had a few startups that were in the technology space, but by and large the majority of our companies have been service-based."

Program alumni include Student Maid, a commercial cleaning service that has employed hundreds of people, and Corks & Colors, a paint-it-yourself business that was able to open its own studio in Gainesville and is about to open a second in Ocala.

About 80 alumni and 30 currently incubating companies have created 300 jobs and annual revenues of $6 million to $7 million, Dorman said.

He said he has seen a diversity of entrepreneurs, with about half being women and a high percentage being minorities.

"What's interesting about that is we did not expressly set out with any goals in that regard," he said. "I think it's very much a reflection of the community."

Jobs are available here that don't require post-secondary education, such as criminal justice techs, grill cooks and insurance agents, said Makaya McKnight, chief operating officer of the Institute for Workforce Innovation, a nonprofit that operates the FloridaWorks One-Stop Center in Gainesville.

The agency also has federal money for training and certification programs to help people get more employable skills in jobs such nursing, pharmacy tech, information technology, biotech, commercial driving and HVAC technician.

Even technology jobs will benefit people of all backgrounds as the innovation economy grows, Giuliani said.

Local business people have been pointing to research by Enrico Moretti, professor of economics at the University of California at Berkeley, who wrote in "The New Geography of Jobs" that every new innovation job creates five "non-innovation" jobs — for carpenters, waiters, hairstylists, personal trainers, lawyers, doctors and teachers.

Innovation Square developer Trimark Properties wrote in a news release that growth in the square is increasing demand for goods and services, leading businesses throughout Gainesville to add workers and invest in other local companies.

"We used to be surrounded by empty buildings and undeveloped lots," Reggae Shack Cafe owner Omar Oselimo was quoted as saying. "Now we have companies and students around Innovation Square that patronize our restaurant."

In an interview with The Sun, downtown restaurant owner Hiro Leung of Dragonfly Sushi said he has definitely seen more business from tech workers. He said they tend to be young, often stay out late socializing because they usually don't have families and because they have disposable income to spend.

That does not mean he has been able to hire more people, though.

"We've stayed pretty steady the past few years," he said of his workforce.

Hinson-Rawls said she gets a "warm feeling" just talking about the renewed attention on economic development in her district.

"Stay tuned," she said. "If it can be done, it can be done in Gainesville because we've got everything we need to do it. We've got the talent, the resources, the brain trust. All we need now are the skill sets that may be missing."

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