San Diego tech jobs pay well

10 percent of the jobs and 20 percent of the income

— San Diego needs some good news. Here's some: high-paying tech jobs continue to proliferate. Tech should get some help from the weakening dollar, although it won't be as much as it might be. Much of San Diego's tech is research, not the making of products. A weak dollar boosts product exports. But San Diego does export intellectual property. That will be a boost.

Here are some heartening numbers, as compiled by Cheryl Mason of San Diego Association of Governments. As of the first quarter of this year (the last figures available), 6.2 percent of local business establishments were in the tech business, including biotech. They represented 10.5 percent of the jobs and 20.2 percent of total payroll. Translation: tech jobs pay very well. And the 20.2 percent is up from 19.2 percent a year ago.

The big winner is scientific research and development, which provides 24,123 jobs and $662 million of payroll (out of a county total of $15.8 billion). Next come wireless communications carriers at 9888 jobs and $475 million payroll. Next is architectural and engineering services, 23,245 jobs and $429 million payroll. Computer systems and design are next at 15,766 jobs and $307 million payroll. Smaller categories include biotech, computers, communications equipment, semiconductors, aerospace, ship and boat building, medical equipment, software, satellite communications, data processing services, and specialized design services.

When the aerospace industry collapsed in the early 1990s, San Diego concentrated on attracting clusters of industries, including tech. "There is nothing wrong with that," says Donald Cohen, president of the Center on Policy Initiatives, but he doubts that either the City or County recruited that many companies. "Universities' synergies" were more responsible for the tech boom, says Cohen.

Agreeing is Kelly Cunningham, economist with the San Diego Institute for Policy Research. "It really goes back to the beginning of [the University of California, San Diego]" and other nearby research institutions. Biotech and telecom flowered from academic and research facilities, says Cunningham, noting that Irwin Mark Jacobs, cofounder of Qualcomm, was a professor of computer science and engineering at UCSD from 1966 to 1972.

"Tech has 10 percent of the jobs and 20 percent of the income -- among the higher paid in town," says economist Alan Gin of the University of San Diego. "People in high tech are attracted by amenities, put more emphasis on lifestyle." San Diego's weather may continue to attract them, "but negatives like crime, traffic, and periodic fires," along with a high cost of living, may turn some off. "Rural living may become less attractive."

"We're a victim of our own success," says Cunningham. "We've made San Diego such a desirable place to be; it's so expensive. Housing development has not matched job and population growth. It's making it very expensive to be producing products, hiring workers; we lose out with the high cost of living."

But will the falling dollar propel tech even further? Gin doubts it. Manufacturing was 12.8 percent of total employment in 1990. Now it's down to 7.9 percent. "We're good at research and development, entrepreneurial activity, but when it comes to making products and profits, we're not so good," says Cunningham. "It's an expensive place to make products."

But Ross Starr, professor of economics at the University of California, San Diego, points out that "Qualcomm gets a lot of international revenue from licensing its patents." Revenues in nondollar currencies expand when translated into the dollar. He also points out that big pharmaceuticals such as Pfizer and Merck that have facilities here will profit from the weak dollar and perhaps plunk more money in San Diego. He says the fat salaries in tech are partly a function of high housing prices: tech firms have to pay big salaries to get the smart folks here. The same is true of universities that spawn the local tech employees and start-up companies: faculty salaries have to go up to hire and retain talented personnel.

The stock market has had mortgage-related woes, but for a while the tech stocks avoided the carnage. In recent sessions, however, that has not been true. Bud Leedom of the California Stock Report says that "a lot of exciting new products" pushed the techs upward. He thinks tech stocks will pause here. The weak dollar will help overseas demand grow. San Diego biotechs Illumina and Invitrogen and defense tech Science Applications International are on his list of California's 26 top buys.

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