Can Trade and Logistics Remake Florida?

Florida took a beating during the Great Recession. Like many of its Sun Belt peers, the prominent roles of real estate, tourism, and financial services led to over 650,000 jobs lost between 2007 and 2010. Many of the state’s largest metro areas remain thousands of jobs below their peak levels.

Yet, Florida will soon pass New York and become the country’s third-largest state, and it’s still growing. The question for state and metropolitan leaders is how they can make sure the newly created jobs are more production-oriented and better able to withstand the economic shocks of tomorrow.

That’s why trade and logistics are so important to Florida’s economic future.

Florida is already uniquely positioned from a logistics perspective. Miami International Airport is one the country’s most important international air freight hubs, operating as our chief gateway to Latin America and responsible for moving $68.5 billion in international goods just last year (PDF). The state boasts 15 deep water ports, and the state will have invested $700 million in port infrastructure by the end of Governor Rick Scott’s four-year term. The state is also blessed with cutting-edge freight policies, most notably through the regional planning efforts coordinated out of the Office of Freight Logistics and Passenger Operations.

However, for all its logistics advantages, Florida simply doesn’t make enough of its own stuff. The state lost 75,000 manufacturing jobs since 2007, and manufacturing’s share of state employment is now only half as large as the country as a whole. Based on our goods trade data, Florida ran a domestic and international trade deficit of -$180 billion in 2010. This deficit also extends to logistics itself. Based on comments made by Florida East Coast Railways during the 2014 Logistics and Trade Conference, every four carloads of goods brought into the state can only be matched by one carload leaving it.

This leaves Florida with a unique opportunity. How can it better leverage its logistics position to create homegrown trade?

The state has great potential. While Florida’s manufacturing employment is relatively small, the industry base is well-positioned to compete in the global economy. The state has a major manufacturing presence in aerospace, computers, and medical devices—all of which represent the kind of advanced industries that will continue to prosper. The manufacturing firms that do exist also tend to export a large share of their goods. And industries can rely on great partners like the Florida Chamber of Commerce and Enterprise Florida, both  with a long history of supporting the state’s tradable industries—most recently with a push to boost manufacturing based on those logistics advantages (PDF).

What the state needs to do now is start following-through on its opportunities. It means creating a better pipeline of talent to fill the high-skill jobs characterized by advanced industries. It means continuing the build-out of export strategies in Jacksonville and Tampa. And most critically, it means instilling a culture change within all of the state’s metro areas: to move toward an economic model that includes more production and innovation alongside real estate and tourism. State leaders can provide all the right tools to these markets, but it’s incumbent on local networks of public, private, and civic leaders to follow-through.

I have no doubt that orange juice and sunsets will continue to make Florida a recognizable brand across the world. Here’s hoping medical equipment and other manufactured goods join that list of famous Florida products.