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‘App economy’ is sizzling with potential

Raymond Gonzalez, a Florida International University senior, is developing an iPhone application called Pet Finder that will allow users to browse the dogs and cats at the local animal shelter or request an animal for adoption. He is also part of a team creating mobile apps that track bank failures, issue alerts about earthquakes and organize homework assignments.

It’s a well-calculated effort to learn as much as he can about mobile technology as quickly as possible. “My goal is to make all these apps free and open source while using the knowledge gained to build my startup company after graduation,” said Gonzalez, who is majoring in information technology.

Whether he starts his own company or works for someone else, Gonzalez is preparing to be a player in a high-paying, sizzling new industry, one that might provide the United States with a big opportunity to increase its exports in coming years.

While the overall economy still lags, the “app economy” has created nearly 500,000 jobs in the United States since 2007, when there were none.

Companies even worry that the nation isn’t moving fast enough to produce new talent for thousands of unfilled jobs as consumers demand more and more gizmos and gadgets for their smartphones.

As a result, salaries are rising quickly: Mobile apps developers can expect pay increases of 9 percent next year, among the highest of any jobs, putting them in the range of $92,750 to $133,500 a year, according to a survey that the staffing and consulting firm Robert Half International released last month.

If the United States can maintain its dominance in the industry, many say the app economy could make a big dent in the country’s federal trade deficit. Last year, for example, more than 20 percent of the apps downloaded in China were made by U.S. developers.

“There is unprecedented opportunity for America to capitalize on exploding international markets,” Peter Farago, the vice president of marketing for Flurry, a high-tech startup in San Francisco, testified in September before the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade.

Farago said his company had more than 100 employees and 50 open positions and that “we literally cannot find the talent we need fast enough.” He told members of the subcommittee that the app economy would become increasingly international and that the United States should do more to improve education and retraining programs and to make it easier for companies to bring and keep more talent from foreign countries.

“We’re in a human capital crunch,” added Rey Ramsey, the president and chief executive officer of TechNet, a network of technology executives that promotes the industry.

According to a TechNet study released earlier this year, the 466,000 mobile-tech jobs created since the iPhone was introduced include programmers, designers, marketers, managers and support staff for Apple, Android, Facebook and other platforms. California is by far the most dominant player in the industry, accounting for nearly one of every four jobs. New York ranks second, followed by Washington state, Texas, New Jersey, Illinois, Massachusetts, Georgia, Virginia and Florida.

Among metropolitan regions, New York ranked first, followed by San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont, San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara and Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue. Miami-Fort Lauderdale ranked 19th.

South Florida’s rank will likely lift as the region’s tech community grows. Some universities have begun retooling their curricula to meet the growing demand, including FIU, which was recently ranked No. 2 in the nation for the number of computer science bachelor’s degrees bestowed.

Steven Luis, director of technology and business relations at the School of Computing and Information Sciences at FIU, teaches an iOS development course, where Gonzalez and other students have been developing apps that solve “real world challenges” for organizations such as the Humane Society of Greater Miami and, Luis said. He also mentors an FIU senior class project, which is developing an events app for the Miami Beach Visitor & Convention Authority’s Open API initiative.

Also, on Thursday nights, about 20 mobile developers, designers and other app enthusiasts meet at AppDojo, a collaborative innovation group at Florida International University. Students from all disciplines — as well as members of the public — are welcome to participate in the free program.

Founded by Luis and alumnus Carlos Ordonez in August, AppDojo is an open space where students and others team up to build their innovations and meet with mentors. It’s inspired by hacker spaces — “here they have the resources they don’t have in their apartments,” said Luis, who also brings in speakers.

At AppDojo, Gonzalez, who already has about 10 years of experience in web development and works for a Tampa-based company, paired up with Michael Olivero, an adjunct professor at FIU and a senior software architect at Inktel Direct. Olivero had already published one app but wanted to expand his learning by creating small functional apps that explore different features of the iOS platform. Olivero created a spreadsheet with 19 functions, and he and Gonzalez are going about developing as many apps as they can in the 19 areas.

In the way that FIU’s AppDojo crosses disciplines, Florida Atlantic University offers a collaborative course called Android App Design and Project Management, which will be offered again this spring. Last spring the class, made up of business, engineering, graphic design and anthropology majors, developed seven apps related to health and safety. For one pair of students in the class — Mathew Hudson and Andrew Stadtlander — their class project became a core focus of their app-development company, Stadson Technology in Boca Raton. With nine people on the team so far, Stadson is already creating jobs.

Stadson’s app called HelpN, which will be marketed to universities, helps students in distress alert first responders with both the student’s location and health information and other data the responder might need. FAU plans to beta test the app on its campus soon and Stadson is also marketing it to FIU, the University of Miami and the University of Central Florida on its road to going national.

“We’re moving, we’re moving fast. We’re really trying to make a difference,” said Hudson, Stadson Technology’s CEO. “This is a huge leap for schools and we will continue to improve the product to better help the universities.”

Nationally, mobile app education is on the fast track, too. At Washington State University, Kerri Lingo managed a team that created an app for Dick Hannah Dealerships, allowing the auto dealer’s customers to schedule appointments or to make quick contact when they’re stranded on the road, using GPS — the Global Positioning System — to show their locations. After graduating last year with a degree in creative media and digital culture, Lingo went to work for the dealership in its marketing department.

“It was very fast. In 12 weeks, we went from not knowing anything about mobile apps to having one completed,” Lingo said.

Dene Grigar, an associate professor who’s the director of the creative media and digital culture program at Washington State, said the university began updating its curriculum as soon as the iPhone was released. “You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out where the future’s headed.”

Follow Nancy Dahlberg on Twitter @ndahlberg