What Workers Earn

By Hannah Wallace November 30, 2004

Three years ago, with dreams of becoming a schoolteacher, Aisha Vasquez-Jackson turned her back on a $40,000-a-year sales and distribution position with the Gillette Corporation in Boston to pursue a Master's degree in language and literacy.

Now 32, Vasquez-Jackson knows she could be doing better up north, where she lived until moving to Sarasota last year. "In Boston, I would have started at $40,000 to $45,000 or even higher," she says. As a first-grade teacher at Emma E. Booker Elementary, she makes just $33,000.

Vasquez-Jackson sees more promising personal fulfillment after 30 years in education than she can in administration, but it stings when friends in her native New Jersey tell her she could be earning $50,000 there. Says Vasquez-Jackson, "It's definitely a gap."

A study by Suncoast Work Force Board, a division of Workforce Florida, shows that employment in this area surged 113 percent between 1980 and 2001. The report says the Suncoast economy, which is Sarasota and Manatee counties, has "proven more robust in the face of the current and telecom busts than the economies of high-tech boom towns such as Colorado Springs, Boise, Austin and even North Carolina's vaunted research triangle."

Another study by Manpower, Inc., a global employment services company, indicates that 55 percent of Sarasota County employers plan to hire more people (compared to a statewide average of just 26 percent), making this the fourth-hottest employment market in the nation.

So why aren't workers like Vasquez-Jackson in Sarasota and Manatee earning at least as much as those in areas with poorer economies? According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the average annual salary for all occupations in the combined Sarasota and Bradenton metropolitan area is just $29,490, lower than most of Florida's 19 other metro areas and nearly $10,000 less than in Colorado Springs, Austin and Raleigh/Durham.

The most oft-cited reason is our service-based economy, which gained 120,000 positions over the last two decades. Nancy Engel of Manatee County's Committee for Economic Development blames both the service and retail sectors that feed our tourism, and Kathy Baylis of the Economic Development Corporation of Sarasota County points to Florida's at-will employment status, which discourages union participation from driving wages up.

Unfortunately, it's not cheap to live here. According to ACCRA, a national clearinghouse that tracks cost of living, Sarasota's index scores a fat 105.4 (out of an average of 100), making it one of Florida's most expensive cities. West Palm Beach (108.8), Miami (112.2) and Fort Lauderdale (116.8) all rank higher than Sarasota (Naples is not included because it does not participate in ACCRA), but Durham, North Carolina's cost of living ranks seven points lower, and its average annual wage is $39,180.

While 92 percent of Manatee County jobs and 89 percent of Sarasota County jobs paid enough in 2002 to support a single working adult, the majority of local jobs were not sufficient to support single working parents with any number of children. In two-parent families where both adults earned the same amount, about 65 percent of jobs paid enough to support both adults and one child, but, "Eighty percent of the workforce makes less than $35,000 and only 11 percent makes more than $45,000," says Allyson O'Connor, a specialist for the Suncoast Workforce Board.

"The housing price index for Manatee County is 101.7, which means a $100,000 home in Florida costs $101,700 in Manatee County," she continues. And median home prices of $217,00 in Manatee County and $275,000 in Sarasota are not exactly affordable for people like Beverly Zimmerman, a home health aide who has lived in Sarasota since 1993.

After Zimmerman's divorce, she sold her home to rent a duplex in Lake Sarasota. "I was in the market to buy, but I just couldn't see spending $160,000 for a house that's really worth $60,000 to $70,000," says the pragmatic Missouri native. "Even the rent is horrendous. There's nothing in Sarasota that can touch what I have right now for less than $1,000 a month." Unable to qualify for a home out of her price range (and unable to find one that is in it) Zimmerman is moving north of University Parkway-and only after taking in a roommate. "I'll rent for another couple of years," she says. "Then I'll try to buy again."

"What amazes me is that even as the cost of living and housing prices go up, I've not seen a lot of pressure on wages to rise," says Baylis. Even with lower wages, unemployment here hovers around 3 percent, compared to a statewide average of just under 5 percent and a national average of 5.6 percent.

According to the Agency for Workforce Innovation, the average annual wage in Sarasota did rise by more than 7 percent between 2002 and 2003 to $31,402, which is still $2,000 higher than in Manatee County, where the average wage is $29,216.

Wages in Manatee County rose a mere 2 percent, but unlike Sarasota, all of its major industry sectors posted wage increases, on average 4 percent. Statistics show that manufacturing jobs in Manatee pay almost $8,000 higher than those in Sarasota, even though there are fewer manufacturing sites in Manatee County. Transportation and warehousing also paid a whopping $13,000 more in Manatee than in Sarasota last year. But those numbers are misleading, says Engel. While most Sarasota manufacturers simply make components for larger, out-of-town companies, Manatee manufacturers (like Tropicana, Eaton and Chris Craft) also employ engineers whose higher wages may have been averaged with all employees. It's possible that assembly line workers in Manatee and Sarasota are earning similar wages, but this is difficult to confirm because of how companies report these figures.

Where Sarasota picks up steam is its high concentration of financiers and insurers. With an average income of $61,791, these were Sarasota's biggest moneymakers, even though they comprise only 6 percent of industries overall.

Food service and hospitality workers here earn the least, on average just $15,235. Construction workers, who make up 14 percent of Sarasota workers, earn $34,500, while professional, scientific and technical service workers (which comprise 13 percent of the local economy) earn just over $46,000 a year.

Sarasota arts and entertainment workers posted the largest salary increase, 26 percent between 2002 and 2003. Transportation and warehousing salaries decreased the most, by 17 percent, although it should be noted that transportation jobs in Sarasota sank by 40 percent. Meanwhile, management salaries shrank by 16 percent even as managerial positions grew by 25 percent. Manufacturing wages remained the most stable.

What concerns Baylis more than the level of wages is the amount of money leaving the area. "One benchmark for measuring the worth of a community is its 'buy', or disposable income," she explains. Low wages decrease "buy" income because employees must spend the bulk of their money on necessities like gas, car notes and mortgages. That hurts retailers and those selling products and services.

"We're at a crossroads here in Sarasota County," warns Baylis, who believes that if residential real estate, tourism and service-related employment continue to dominate Sarasota's employment picture, its future economic picture could fade dramatically. In Sarasota alone, three of the highest paying jobs-manufacturing, finance and real estate-grew by just 9,000 positions over the last 20 years.

"We presume most of the money spent in Sarasota is coming from affluent retirees," says O'Connor. "With the average wage about $29,000, and many workers in service-related jobs earning much less, workers do not have discretionary income to spend."

According to Baylis, only 40 to 45 percent of personal income on the Suncoast is comprised of earned wages. The balance comes from investments and government income like Social Security, Medicare and welfare. "Across the nation it's 70 to 75 percent," she says. "That's an unhealthy balance. We're always going to have wealthy retirees, but we should really be between 60 to 65 percent of earned income."

Baylis says newcomers like Hewlett Packard's satellite office and Vertex are paying on a national average. "If you're making $75,000 in Boston, you might be willing to make $60,000 here. But my experience with local human resource directors is that if they don't pay national average, they're not going to get qualified people in here."

Still, low-skilled workers can't be redeployed to high value-added positions when Sarasota and Manatee rank lower than other Florida metro areas in knowledge-intensive occupations like engineering, software development and research, which tend to attract people under 50.

Almost half of the adult population in Sarasota is already over age 55, with 34 percent over 65. That type of age-related growth could reduce the working-age employment pool by 15,000 in another five years.

To harvest younger employees, both Sarasota and Manatee counties have created young professional networking groups for those under 40. But if housing costs continue their current course, more than half of that workforce will be forced to live in Desoto and Charlotte counties.

Schoolteacher Vasquez-Jackson and her husband are building a home in North Port, where $220,000 is buying them 2,300 square feet with a pool and two-car garage. She'll have a 45-minute commute to work, but it's a far cry from the hour-and-a-half she used to spend traveling to Gillette in Boston.

Moves like theirs don't hurt Sarasota's economy, but desertions to outlying counties will continue to shrink the tax base and endanger funding for services and maintenance of community assets like beaches, roads and waterways. This could deter tourism, draining even more money from the local economy.

To avoid this scenario, Baylis says officials in Sarasota, Manatee, Charlotte and Desoto counties must coordinate efforts for the good of the entire area. "We are part of a region," she says. "We're not an island."

As part of that push, the Economic Development Council has repositioned itself as the Economic Development Corporation of Sarasota County. Historically concentrating on business relocation and expansion, its new scope includes cluster development strategies, business climate issues (like affordable housing and lifestyle amenities), and working in a collaborative fashion with the different chambers of commerce, convention and visitors bureaus and Suncoast Workforce.

"Until Sarasota gets a density of high-tech professionals, local employees will continue to tout its lifestyle in lieu of $10,000 additional salary, says O'Connor. "Beaches, moderate climate, cultural amenities, proximity to Tampa, all do count for something."

Baylis acknowledges that people want to be here. "They retire to Florida and they're willing to bag groceries for whatever they can earn doing that." As long as businesses are able to hire at that level, she maintains, wages will remain low: "It's basically the law of supply and demand."


Howard Millman

Artistic Director, Asolo Theatre


Victoria Chapman


The Royal Maid


Ron Getman

Manatee County Commissioner


Mary Anne Servian

City of Sarasota Commissioner


Ewen Cameron

CEO Teltronics, Inc.


Ed Wisbrun

Hotdog Vendor


Leif Bjaland

Artistic Director Florida West Coast Symphony


Stuart Kaminsky


$100,000 (for 2003)

Aisha Vasquez-Jackson


Emma E. Booker Elementary


Beverly Zimmerman

Home Health Aide


Raymond Felske

Electrical Contractor


Elliott Metcalf

Public Defender


Melanie Bright




The U.S. Department of Labor says the average annual wage in Sarasota/Manatee is $29,490. See how far that amount goes if you're a renter or a home owner here.

Expense If You Rent If You Own

Housing $1,000 $1,300

Utilities $50 $70

Car Note $320 $320

Food $300 $300

Medical Insurance N/A if employer paid. If not, add $300/month. N/A if employer paid. If not, add $300/month.

Car Insurance $46 $46

Basic Cable $53 $53

Gas $90 $90

Life Insurance $55 $55

Telephone $40 $40

Clothing $50 $50

Electricity $150

Yard Maintenance $140

Monthly Total $2,004 $2,614

Yearly Expenses $24,048; if medical insurance is not employer paid, total expenses reach $27,648 $31,368; if medical insurance is not employer paid, total expenses reach $34,968 

Notes: Rental is based on two-room apartment. Mortgage is based on $180,000 home price financed for 30 years at 6-percent interest, not including taxes or interest. Medical insurance is based on $300/month average. Above table does not include expenses for emergencies, gifts, vacations, entertainment, newspaper, home repairs, home furnishing purchases or school loans.

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