Professional services exports total just guesswork in Miami
By Zachary S. Fagenson
While no one seems to have a fix on the total value of the work Miami professionals do abroad, everyone agrees it's a significant part of the local economy.
But without such figures, some say, local and state economic development officials may be missing key growth opportunities.
"Last year it was estimated that $27 billion in services were "exported' by Florida companies," said Manny Mencia, senior vice president of international trade development for Enterprise Florida, the state's economic development agency, "but we can't break it out by region, let alone county. I assume South Florida provides the bulk but couldn't estimate a percentage."
Miami-Dade County doesn't keep such figures either, according to spokesperson Victoria Mallette. A spokesperson for the Beacon Council, the county's official economic development arm, said the same.
Even at the federal level, the value of work done by US firms abroad isn't calculated as accurately as exports or tourism, for example.
"We do our best, but honestly it's kind of a conundrum," said Sarah Cooke, an international trade specialist at the Fort Lauderdale US Export Assistance Center, though the commerce department is hosting a conference in Washington this week on just this issue.
Enterprise Florida uses a formula, devised about 10 years ago in collaboration with Florida International University, that pegs the total value of the state's service exports at 5.5% of the nation's total, according to head of research Joe Kulenovic.
"This was part of broader, concerted effort coordinated between Enterprise Florida, the state, the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce as well as Florida International University to promote the export of knowledge-intensive, high-value added services from our state," he said.
The collaboration led to creation of the Florida Services Network, which had listings of all Florida service exporters, helped link service firms with others abroad looking to do business in Latin America and was the trade initiative of the chamber.
The website still exists and business can still register on it, though the grants for it have run out and the chamber now focuses on different trade promotion programming.
Though the study could be a powerful addition to economic development agencies' toolbox, budget squeezes on state and local budgets prevent universities and others likely to conduct the survey from doing so.
"We need a scientific sample so we can make conclusions and the way you do it is through a large sample that is representative of what's going on relative to exports of professional services," said Tony Villamil, dean of St. Thomas University's business school. "That takes money. You need to have a university do the survey, develop the sample and collect data every quarter."
Mr. Villamil during Enterprise Florida's quarterly board meeting at the Biltmore Hotel last month made a point to say how critical such a figure could be in directing the state's economic development efforts.
Such a study could reveal "what do we need to do to continue growing knowledge-based services," Mr. Villamil said. "It's an area that's not properly accounted for and therefore it's properly neglected."
The study would include data on international legal, medical and financial billings, he added.
The "way FIU did it, they called it a survey and needs assessment. They surveyed all known Florida service providers likely to export services abroad," Mr. Kulenovic said. They "gave a questionnaire asking the volume of exports, what percent of clients are from overseas, the [dollar] range of billings you fall into, how many dedicated staff are working on international [business and] geographically what was the breakdown of client bases."
With a research staff of two, however, it seems unlikely that Enterprise Florida would be looking to replicate such a study.
To get the ball rolling on a study, Mr. Villamil said, businesses need to convey the importance of such figures to economic development strategies and tactics.
"I think the first thing you need to do is raise it to the level of policymakers and then of course find a university champion… to champion this and see if funding can be obtained to develop the sample, track it and implement it," Mr. Villamil said.
But with other issues such as the dredging of the Port of Miami's south channel hot on the minds of local business and civic leaders, it seems the effort to accurately calculate the impact of exported professional services may remain dormant for some time.