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Austin's vibe, work force draw tech, other employers

Staff Writer
Austin 360

When Facebook Inc. was searching for its first location outside Silicon Valley, it chose Austin over several other cities. Before long, Facebook's downtown Austin office will grow to 200 employees, handling sales and operations work for the world's biggest online social network.

The qualities that attracted Facebook — a skilled workforce, a healthy economy and a high quality of life — have lured other companies in the past year, ranging from an East Coast prosthetics maker, which is moving its headquarters here, to a raft of startups that see Austin as a promising place to thrive.

In the biggest economic development bonanza of the year, Samsung Electronics will spend $3.6 billion to expand its 14-year-old semiconductor manufacturing complex — the chip giant's only plant outside South Korea.

As noted previously in this edition, Austin routinely ranks high on various "best cities" lists. But it got a particularly noteworthy nod from Kiplinger, a leading personal finance magazine, which identified Austin as the "best city for the next decade," citing its strong entrepreneurial culture, focus on "innovative thinking" and an "eclectic" cultural vibe.

Those are some of Austin's particular strengths, bolstered by its standing as the capital of the second largest state and home to the University of Texas, one of the country's largest universities.

With government and education as economic ballast, Central Texas rode out the recession of 2008-2009 with less damage than many other cities suffered. Austin was the last major city in the country to stop adding jobs in the downturn, and has been among the first cities to start generating new ones.

The new jobs are coming heavily from small and mid-size companies in areas including medical devices and business software. Companies with fewer than 100 workers account for almost 40 percent of the region's job total.

Technology continues to be the region's core private industry sector, with major companies such as Dell Inc., Advanced Micro Devices Inc. and Freescale Semiconductor Inc. among the region's largest employers. Apple Inc. has expanded its Austin operations and now has upward of 2,500 employees here.

No surprise for a state capital, government, including public school districts and colleges, accounts for more than one in five area jobs. Health care provides more than 10 percent of the region's 768,000 jobs.

The area's three largest health care companies — the Seton Family of Hospitals, St. David's Healthcare and Scott & White Healthcare — all have expanded older hospitals or opened new facilities and are extending their reach in Austin's northern and southern suburbs.

Retail sales have picked up steam regionwide. Major retailers such as the H-E-B grocery chain and Dillard's have opened new stores in Austin, and Walmart has two new stores under way or on the drawing board.

Meanwhile, developers are getting into position to start building new downtown office towers, filling in a skyline that includes the just-opened, 56-story Austonian condominiums — the tallest residential structure west of the Mississippi.

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Largest public and private employers in the area

1. Austin school district

2. City of Austin

3. Dell Inc.

4. Federal government

5. IBM Corp.

6. Seton Family of Hospitals

7. St. David's HealthCare

8. State of Texas

9. University of Texas

10. Freescale Semiconductor Inc.

Source: Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce