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South Florida workers are among the poorest-paid. The ‘Miami Discount’ may be to blame.

How South Florida wages measure up against other cities

South Florida is one of the lowest-paid areas in the U.S. Here's how we measure up against other major metros.
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South Florida is one of the lowest-paid areas in the U.S. Here's how we measure up against other major metros.

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If you’re feeling underpaid in South Florida, you’re probably right.

In the Miami area, elementary school teachers earn about $45,000 a year, working out to approximately $21 per hour — less than in any major U.S. metro except Tucson, Ariz. Even those in Tuscaloosa, Ala.; Boise, Idaho; and Tallahassee make more.

A registered nurse here makes $32.74 per hour. That’s less than in Atlanta, Dallas or Denver.

And while South Florida is famous for its high-profile law firms, the median hourly salary for a local lawyer is about $57 — less than in Philadelphia, Sacramento or Chicago.

According to the latest reports from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, South Floridians earn significantly less than workers in other large metros for all but a handful of occupations, like flight attendants, construction workers and security guards.

Nationwide, “the Miami metro area is among the poorest paid,” said Donald Grimes, an economist at the University of Michigan, via email. Of 33 major metros, only median wages in San Antonio, Texas, and Orlando are lower, he found.

It’s not that pay here has stalled. Between the years 2011 and 2018, median wages across the region grew 13 percent — one percentage point better than the national gain over the same time period.

In Phoenix and Raleigh, N.C., wages grew less over the same time period. But because Miami-area wages start lower than in those and many other cities, barely surpassing the national average doesn’t count for much when Miami is trying to compete.

And when you adjust for inflation, Miami-area families are in retrograde. In 2016, the county’s median household income was $45,900. In real dollars, that’s less than the $49,800 earned in 1970, according to Alan Berube, senior fellow and deputy director at the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program.

Spreadsheet: How South Florida pay stacks up

But for Grimes, South Florida’s biggest problem isn’t low pay in its many working-class jobs, like hotel housekeepers, who earn $10.97 at the median, more than maids in Orlando or Hilton Head, S.C.

“Your problem is not that you pay lower-skilled workers too little but that you pay higher skilled workers too little,” he wrote.

Carlos Caballero, a 25-year-old waiter at Miami International Airport and father of a young daughter, makes less than $6 an hour as a waiter, and must rely on tips to earn Florida's minimum wage.

Even when you factor in Florida’s oft-touted absence of income taxes, pay often lags. For instance, the median wage for a basket of high-end professions — including business and financial, architecture and engineering and management — is less here than the state income tax-adjusted wages in Chicago, San Diego or Portland, Ore.

Take software developers, a key component of South Florida’s burgeoning tech and startup industries. The Miami area’s 2018 median of $44.77 per hour for software application developer falls below the tax-adjusted rates of Atlanta ($46.30 after taxes, $49.13 before), Silicon Valley ($53.10 after taxes, $61.25 before) and Austin ($51.33. Texas has no state income tax.).

The cost of the South Florida wage gap: A brain drain that local officials thought had died down is again on the rise.

Recent Census data show that without immigrants and natural births, Miami-Dade would have experienced a net loss in population over the past five years.

“You hear practically every student say they just don’t see themselves staying here,” said Ned Murray, associate director of the Metropolitan Center at Florida International University.

The Miami area’s cost of living makes things worse. According to an analysis by the Philadelphia branch of the Federal Reserve, the local cost of living — food, clothing, housing, healthcare, transportation — is 8 percent above the national average.

That’s significantly lower than in New York, Los Angeles or San Diego, where the cost of living is 22, 18 and 16 percent higher, respectively, than the national average. But the Miami area’s 8 percent is higher than in Chicago, where costs are 4 percent over the national average. In both Atlanta and Orlando, the cost of living is slightly less than the national average.

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Construction workers secure a metal support beam to shore up the above floor at the Porsche Design Tower, a 60-story super high-end luxury condo, in Sunny Isles Beach in 2014. Thanks to an influx of cheap foreign labor, construction workers in Miami come cheap — at the median, they make less than $14 an hour. Carl Juste Miami Herald Staff

And as the cost of housing continues to rise, experts say, the problem will only grow more urgent.

Abundant jobs

The region’s abundance of low-skilled, low-paying jobs has been long been both it’s strength and curse.

On the plus side, the Miami area’s hospitality and construction industries offer opportunities for recent immigrants with minimal education and job skills, experts say. Florida’s 2019 minimum wage of $8.46 is higher than the national minimum of $7.25, though lower than the minimum in 26 states.

“Florida’s higher than the national average minimum wage may explain why the wages [in] food services occupations are relatively high,” Grimes said.

But despite strategic community efforts to diversify the local economy and boost the tech and startup communities, the growing number of high-skilled jobs is still eclipsed by the increase in low-wage occupations. According to official Florida projections, between 2018 and 2026, Miami-Dade will see more growth in ambulatory healthcare services — think everyone who works in an outpatient care facility except the doctor — than any other sector, jumping by more than 15,000 jobs. This group, excluding supervisors, earns a bit more than $26 an hour — and typically is scheduled for fewer than 40 hours a week, according to federal data.

Leisure and hospitality jobs are also expected to climb — by more than 16,000 positions, or 11.4 percent. Average hourly earnings for non-supervisors: just over $14 an hour.

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Leisure and hospitality jobs are expected to continue to boom in South Florida over the next few years. Emily Michot emichot@miamiherald.com

“Clearly, you’ve got a problem with quality job growth, especially for jobs that have the potential to reach people in the bottom half of the earnings distribution,” said Berube of the Brookings Institution.

Economists agree that education is key to boosting wages and job quality. Despite the abundance of local colleges and universities and enviable programs like Miami Dade College’s full-tuition commitment for high-performing Miami-Dade high school graduates, South Florida lags. Among large metros, the Miami area has one of the lowest percentage of residents with a bachelor’s degree or higher, at about 32 percent, according to the U.S. Census.

Even when it comes to “opportunity jobs” — occupations that pay well but don’t require a bachelor’s degree — the Philadelphia Federal Reserve recently ranked Miami-Dade 118th out of 121 metro areas in that category. Here, fewer than one in six jobs qualifies — meaning it pays above the national median wage after adjustment for the local cost of food, housing and gas, the agency found.

The analysis also found that 63 percent of Miami’s jobs pay less than the national median wage after those same costs of living are factored in. That’s one of the highest rates for any of the 121 metro areas surveyed.

South Florida’s relatively high cost of living is a part of the equation. Keith Wardrip, community development research manager at the Philadelphia Federal Reserve, said in an interview that jobs that might be deemed opportunity jobs elsewhere in the country — truck drivers, carpenters, clerks — don’t meet the criteria because of the local cost of expenses. Instead, South Florida’s opportunity jobs are mostly found in nursing and managerial positions where a college degree is desired but not required.

“The cost of living [in South Florida] is reducing opportunity,” Wardrip said.

Still, the situation may not be quite as grim as the official numbers suggest. Approximately 9 percent of the total U.S. economy is considered to be unreported, or “in the shadows,” according to “The Shadow Economy: An International Survey,” a well-regarded 2013 book. Miami-Dade’s off-the-books cash economy has long been considered to be much greater. A 2007 study of inner-city areas found that more than 11 percent of household income came from unreported sources, thanks to cash payments for housekeeping, construction and other services.

‘Miami Discount’

So why do high-skilled jobs here pay less?

Experts blame a combination of factors, including the relative youth of local industry, a thin corporate bench, business-friendly taxes and a low-wage mentality more pervasive than in even other right-to-work states. Together, it adds up to what the University of Miami’s John Quelch agrees is a “Miami Discount.”

“The attractiveness of Miami as a place to live, plus the zero state income tax” keep wages below par, said Quelch, who is vice provost of UM’s Miami Business School.

South Florida’s ingrained entrepreneurial spirit means people here are also more likely to create their own businesses than learn technical skills, he said.

Like other major Florida metros, South Florida trumpets its business-friendly policies. Zero income tax means businesses can pay workers less and still remain competitive, said Jaap Donath, senior vice president for research and strategic planning at the Miami-Dade Beacon Council. It’s a significant benefit that is helping to draw high earners south — and recent changes to the federal income tax have made South Florida look even sweeter, he said.

For Murray, of the FIU Metropolitan Center, the business-friendly approach is beginning to show diminishing returns.

“In Miami we still have this low-wage mentality,” he said.

On the one hand, the Miami area has taken advantage of a steady inflow of cheap labor from overseas that continues to this day, he said.

At the same time, other metro areas, especially competitors like Atlanta or North Carolina’s Research Triangle, have recognized the need to raise wages to hang on to local talent in professional occupations, like teachers, he said.

“Other areas of the country that have grown, and have industries growing, have acknowledged there has to be adjustments made upwards in terms of wages and salaries to attract and retain the workers they need,” he said.

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Mike Finney, president and CEO of the Beacon Council, presents at the One Community, One Goal ceremony in 2017.

In 2012, as South Florida came out of the Great Recession, the Beacon Council initiated One Community, One Goal, an ambitious blueprint for diversifying an economy long dependent on low-wage tourism jobs. The plan identified seven key sectors — aviation, creative design, hospitality and tourism, information technology, international banking and finance, life sciences and healthcare, and trade and logistics.

By 2018, the effort yielded 67,000 new jobs in the seven targeted industries. Roughly one-third of those are still in hospitality and tourism, where wages have grown slightly more than the area increase of about 13 percent, according to federal data.

But while Miami-Dade and the broader region have made progress, a robust cluster of high-paying industries has still not fully materialized, Murray said.

Brian Dosal, founder and CEO of Strety, an employee management software company, sees this firsthand.

“In other areas, you have corporations competing for talent” and bidding up wages, Dosal said. In Miami, the market for high-end talent is tipped in the employer’s favor; options for senior positions here are fewer.

“There’s no pipeline,” Dosal said.

Miami also has an experience problem, he continued: While someone in Miami may have the job title of “software developer,” they are more likely to be a junior developer here, simply because the local tech industry remains relative new. That means hiring local isn’t always possible, Dosal said.

Brain Drain, Remote Brains

And then there’s the resurgence of a disease Miami thought it had eliminated: brain drain. LinkedIn data confirm Census data showing South Florida now tends to lose more workers than it gains in a given month. For example, for every 10,000 LinkedIn members in Miami or Fort Lauderdale, four workers have moved to West Palm Beach in the past year; about three have moved to Atlanta or Orlando; and about 2.5 have moved to the Tampa Bay area.

Five years ago, Fabiola Fleuranvil, chief creative officer of Blueprint Creative Group, told the Miami Herald she was hopeful about the measures being put in place to shore up the problem.

Now, she finds that while newcomers continue to arrive, keeping them remains a challenge. There is, she said, “a battle between affordability versus income levels.”

Emmy Award winner Paula Echevarría Zamora proves the point. Three years ago, the producer left her hometown of Miami because the money she could earn didn’t keep pace with the increasing cost of living. She set down stakes in New Orleans, where the cost of living is 16 percent less, according to Bankrate.com’s cost-of-living calculator.

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Paula Echevarría Zamora, an Emmy Award-winning television producer, recently moved from Miami to New Orleans, which she found more affordable — and laid back. Paula Echevarría Zamora

“I feel like in Miami [developers] just cater more to foreign investors,” she said in an interview.

The growing cost of housing in the urban core has also caused Dosal to switch strategies. When he built Brightgauge, the software firm he sold earlier this year for an undisclosed sum, he focused on creating a made-in-Miami tech success story.

With Strety, he says he is now willing to compromise on an employee’s location and plans to hire remotely to make sure he gets the right people. Miami’s cost of living has climbed too high for him to count on reliably bringing in talent from elsewhere, he said.

Solutions

The good news, says the Brookings’ Berube, is that South Florida leaders recognize the problem and are taking action. And measures that were put in place years ago are starting to pay off.

While travel and tourism jobs remain essential for the community, the Beacon Council continues to recruit companies in its other targeted industries where pay is higher, said Michael Finney, president and CEO.

“And then we’re working with existing companies to make sure we’re growing those businesses here, and have the key talent we need,” he said. “We also have some initiatives we’re launching designed to facilitate more business-to-business activity, and to assist more economically distressed individuals. We should be rolling those out later this year,” he said.

But change won’t happen overnight.

A recent report by Endeavor Insight showed that Miami’s frequently cited ranking as the No. 1 city for new business creation has yet to pay significant dividends.

Others say it’s still early.

“I think Miami is beginning to think and act differently with regard to its future economy, but will need to be patient to allow those bets to pay off,” Berube wrote in an email.

Former AOL CEO Steve Case agrees. During a recent Miami visit on his “Rise of the Rest” bus tour highlighting growing innovation hubs outside Silicon Valley, Case said the Miami area is in its “second inning” as an evolving economy.

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Lil Roberts, founder and CEO of Xendoo, won $100,000 from Steve Case’s Revolution investment group after winning a startup pitch competition. High-growth startups like Xendoo are key to diversifying South Florida’s economy, experts say. Rob Wile Miami Herald

Lessons can also be learned from other metros.

One reaches back to the post-World War II years. After several years of discussion, North Carolina university and civic leaders in 1959 established the nonprofit Research Triangle Park between the three nearby cities of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill. The project was designed to leverage the expertise of Raleigh’s North Carolina State University, Duke University in Durham and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to boost job quality and retain graduates.

The concept took time to flower; it wasn’t until 1965 that the first major company, IBM, signed on. Today, the 7,000-acre park is home to approximately 250 companies and about 50,000 high-skilled workers. According to the U.S. Census, the median household income in 2017 was $61,500. More than 90 percent of the local population over 25 had a high school degree, and 50 percent had a college degree.

Berube points to a similar story in San Diego. In 1960, the city of San Diego voted to deed a plot of land to what would become the Salk Institute. This led to a cascading effect that produced one of the most robust bioscience centers in the U.S. By 2017, the median household income had grown to $70,588, according to the Census. Almost 87 percent of those over 25 had a high school degree; more than 34 percent had a college degree.

Former Gov. Jeb Bush made a similar bioscience push in South Florida during his administration, with state and county funds totaling more than half a billion dollars paid to open a Scripps Research Institute campus in Palm Beach County. The hope: ignite a biotech boom that would lead to 50,000 jobs over the course of 15 years.

In 2015, when the Palm Beach Post evaluated its progress, the results seemed uneven. The jobs boom, for instance, had not materialized.

But today, according to David Willoughby, founder of life science company Ocean Ridge Biosciences, which launched amidst the bioscience push, there are signs the investment is starting to pay off.

“The Universities such as FIU, UM, FAU, and [Nova, now NSU] are doing a good job of turning out qualified biological scientists that can be hired locally,” he said in an email. “I think the environment is excellent for continued growth of the biosciences industry in South Florida.”

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An effort kick-started by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush to spur jobs in life sciences appears to be finally paying dividends, as more universities produce lab-ready workers. C.M. GUERRERO cmguerrero@miamiherald.com

FIU’s Murray and others, including economist Antonio Villamil of the Washington Group, see solutions in geography. In a city with maddening traffic where mass public transportation is still a matter of wishful thinking, they argue that higher-paying jobs need to move beyond the core into areas where housing prices are more affordable.

Today, according to census figures, Miami-Dade residents travel more than 31 minutes to the jobs — more even than in notoriously sprawling Los Angeles, which clocks in at 30.9 minutes.

The good news: This is already starting to happen. In 2011, Baptist Health opened a new campus in western Dade, bringing more than 1,000 full-time jobs to an area where homes are less expensive than in the urban core. In Doral, thousands of new townhomes, condos and rental apartments have sprung up near corporate headquarters of World Fuel Services, Perry Ellis International, Carnival Corporation, Norwegian Cruise Line and Univision. That doesn’t include Telemundo’s new headquarters in western Miami-Dade. And Miami Lakes has also seen a recent expansion of corporate landings.

But more must be done.

“The economic geography has to be turned around,” Murray said. “People living out west, almost all of them get up and leave to take [SR] 836 to head downtown or to the beach. Same in Doral. So you’ve got football stadiums worth of people leaving, and coming in are all the low-wage jobs, and that’s why we have such a mess.”

Villamil is concerned traffic is eroding Miami’s sunny quality of life.

“There are these transportation bottlenecks, and eventually people leave,” he said.

Berube sees the problem as also a political and organizational one. Where Miami was once business friendly, it must become worker friendly, he says.

“I think you do need public policies and corporate and civic leaders saying we need a different growth model,” he said. “The model of paying the lowest possible wages to recruit the most employees is just not a sustainable one.”

COMMON JOBS

Following are Miami-Dade’s most common occupations counted by the number per thousand jobs, with the median hourly wage locally versus nationally.

Retail salespeople (43 per 1,000 jobs): $10.14 per hour locally, $11.16 nationally

Cashiers (26 per thousand): $9.32 locally, $10.11 nationally

General office clerks (25 per thousand): $13.50 locally, $15.14 nationally

Customer service representatives (25 per thousand): $14.45 locally, $15.81 nationally

Registered nurses (22 per thousand): $31 locally, $33.65 nationally

Freight laborers (21 per thousand): $13.15 locally, $13 nationally

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics — 2017

And for Broward:

Retail salespeople (40 per 1,000 jobs): $10.39 per hour locally, $11.16 nationally

Customer service representatives (34 per thousand): $14.57 locally, $15.81 nationally

Cashiers (30 per thousand) : $9.45 locally, $10.11 nationally

Food service workers (27 per thousand): $9.45 locally, $9.70 nationally

General office clerks (22 per thousand): $14.32 locally, $15.14 nationally

Waiters and waitresses (21 per thousand): $9.41 locally, $10.01 nationally

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics — 2017

HIGH-END JOBS

Following is the median hourly wage for high-skill jobs locally and nationally. Data via Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Job titleMiami-Dade (2017)Raleigh, N.C.San DiegoChicago
Civil engineer$39.86$40.16$41.91$42.62
Executive secretary$26.85$25.12$31.30$28.46
Financial manager$66.79$59.15$60.35$63.47
Human Resources manager$53.14$56.23$60.55$53.06
Lawyer$56.89$49.43$69.19$63.90
Veterinarians$52.72$42.77$48.83$47.75

DATA SOURCES

Statistics used to create this analysis came primarily from U.S. Census data and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics; where possible, all sources are linked in the online version of this article.

Ownership and rental cost data came from the one-year 2017 American Community Survey produced by the U.S. Census Bureau. The report by Richard Florida referenced in other stories in this package used a five-year Selected Housing Characteristics Survey. The two data sets reflect the same trends but with slightly different values.

References in this article to the “Miami area” refer to the Miami Metropolitan Statistical Area. Over time, geographic lines for the area noted as the Miami Metropolitan Statistical Area shifted slightly. The Miami Herald determined that the data trends held true even when the geographic parameters shifted. Wages in the Miami MSA closely mirrored county-specific wages for Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties.

Data related to cities outside the Miami area refer to the metro area in which the named city is located.

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Rob Wile covers business, tech, and the economy in South Florida. He is a graduate of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism. He grew up in Chicago.

Jane Wooldridge, an award-winning journalist and Miami Herald veteran, oversees coverage of real estate, economy, urban development, tourism, cruises, visual arts and Art Basel. She is president-elect of the Society of American Travel Writers. Find her on Instagram @JaneWooldridge.

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