High-tech begins to grow in a plowed, tended field

Ambiance - quality of life - taking precedence over infrastructure. That's a trend that Florida's emergence as a high-tech center illustrates, says futurologist John Naisbitt.

Firms are saying the best place for them to be is a place where people will want to live. They are relatively unconcerned about traditional industrial infrastructure needs - water supply, road and rail access, and the like.

High-tech firms can afford this unconcern because the most important ingredient of their products is the human input.

But one resource important to high-tech firms is still place-bound: top-notch universities. These do not develop as fast as condominiums or shopping malls, and the amount of sunshine they get has nothing to do with their quality.

Despite considerable efforts to upgrade Florida's educational system, both schools and universities, they are still not perceived to be what is needed if the Sunshine State is going to become more than just a middle-level high-tech manufacturing state and to develop into a true research and development center.

In short, Florida's high-tech belt still needs a buckle.

Florida colleges don't produce enough engineers to supply new companies moving in, nor are there adequate continuing-education programs for companies already here.

Meanwhile, there are those who question whether the state government's big push to attract new high-tech isn't a somewhat misdirected effort that means some existing Florida industries get neglected.

All this should not diminish the fact that Florida's high-tech industry is considerable, with dozens of big national names represented here.

The Florida corporation with the highest net income in 1982 was a high-tech firm, the Harris Corporation, based here in Melbourne.

Harris, once known for its printing equipment but now largely an electronics firm, is known for its semiconductors, satellite systems, information systems, and electronic editing machines. Much of its work is on government contract, and the firm is noted for successfully meeting the challenge of ''technology transfer,'' of spinning technology developed for government projects off into commercial products.

Harris, 10,000 strong in Florida with 16,000 more employees around the United States and in Canada, Europe, and Asia, might be seen as a classical example of industry shifting to the Sunbelt.

It was still a Cleveland-based printing press company in the 1950s, when a couple of acquisitions gave it a toehold in electronics; then in 1967 Harris merged with Radiation Inc. This was a Melbourne company that had grown up on the fringe of the space program and was by then looking for commercial outlets for the digital communications systems it had developed for missile guidance systems. By the mid-'70s Harris had gone from a product line that was 84 percent mechanical to one 70 percent in electronics.

Harris has been known to feel a little neglected by the state in its eagerness to draw new people here. Spokesman Fred W. Baker seems to suggest that the state's aggressive wooing of new firms has made the home team feel rather neglected. ''Harris has been high-tech in Florida for 33 years,'' says Mr. Baker. ''Year in and year out our internal growth has probably provided more high-tech jobs than all the other companies attracted by the industrial-development people combined.''

It was apparent that the ''center of gravity'' for the corporation had shifted from Cleveland to Melbourne, and in 1978 corporate headquarters was shifted.

Martin Marietta, another big name, has been in Florida for 25 years and has a major aerospace operation in Orlando.

In nearby Plymouth construction is under way for conversion to robotics of a General Electric plant that once made flashcubes and Christmas tree lights. In Boca Raton, IBM has its robotics center and its personal computer division.

As the state has pondered how to improve its engineering education, one question has been where to make the effort.

Gainesville, seat of the University of Florida, is some distance from the electronics belt, which runs along Interstate 4 from Tampa and St. Petersburg across to Cape Canaveral and thence down the east coast. Tallahassee, seat of Florida State University (FSU) and of Florida A&M University (FAMU), is even farther.

And so the University of South Florida in Tampa and the University of Central Florida in Orlando, both in the electronics belt, have seen their engineering programs expanded and prospering - amid certain criticism that the state can't afford to scatter its fire. ''Many of our top people,'' says an observer with one firm that is a major presence here, ''would prefer that instead of all of them having engineering schools, they would concentrate their fire.''

One of the state's latest efforts, however, would seem to go in the opposite direction: the launching of the FAMU/FSU Institute for Engineering. This institute, to be funded directly by the Legislature, is a whole new engineering school, a joint venture of two schools that have not yet had such a school.

Jalma Shaffer, institute adminstrator, notes, however, that FSU has been very strong in physical sciences and FAMU has had a program in engineering technology , so the two institutions aren't starting in totally cold.

The project was initially controversial - and political. But the institute was launched last fall with some 140 freshmen and sophomores; a junior class will be added next year and the seniors, the year after that.

Ms. Shaffer defends the decision to locate the engineering institute in Tallahasse rather than a place closer to the high-tech belt by noting that FSU and FAMU between them have some 27,000 students - 25 percent of the enrollment of the state university system.

Meanwhile in Jacksonville, John M. Godfrey, vice-president and chief economist of the Barnett Banks, suggests that maybe the state's drive to beef up education should be directed toward strengthening the kind of training available for people seeking careers in some of Florida's more traditionally successful industries.

''Tourism is a broad industry here - how about a school of hotel and restaurant administration?'' he asked. ''We can beat the socks off Georgia and South Carolina, say, in tourism. I'm not sure we can do that much more than other states in the high-tech stuff.''

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