What is a new MBA truly worth?

For several decades, a Master of Business Administration has been a ticket to high-income work with plenty of perks and opportunities. And while this remains true for newly minted MBAs in South Florida, the job field now favors those who can read the trends "” particularly in the area's biggest growth industries.

"We encourage students to think of it as a master's in a business discipline," says Ken Johnson, Ph.D., professor and associate dean of graduate programs at Florida Atlantic University's College of Business.

"The '60s, '70s and '80s were the decades of the MBAs and that's a good thing, to be a generalist," Johnson says. "But there's high demand in certain fields and we've experienced this on the ground."

What you'll make with an advanced business degree depends largely on what type position you pursue. As of May 2014, the mean annual wage for financial managers in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Pompano Beach area is more than $134,000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Compensation and benefits managers make $122,000, while personal financial advisors make about $112,000.

Regardless of the industry, "you're probably looking at a salary increase of $15,000 to $20,000 per year" with an MBA, Johnson says. "Some people will make way more money but more important, it's going to open up lots of lifetime opportunities."

What-is-a-new-MBA-truly-worth_photoAnd the doors truly fly open, he says, when you know the lay of the land in the three-county area where FAU attracts many of its students. Some 6.5 million people call Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties home, and the region has a multisector growth curve unique in Florida "” and the nation.

Tourism, health care and biotechnology hold many of the best opportunities for MBAs, says Dick Clark, CEO and president of Clark Leadership Consulting in Fort Lauderdale and former president of that city's chamber of commerce.

"With MBAs, it's all about relevance and what's going to emerge," Clark notes. "The advice I give people entering their degree program is to make sure the focus of the MBA is on meeting a need that relates to the emerging jobs in Southeast Florida and the state as a whole."

Johnson adds that real estate also holds lucrative possibilities for those on the MBA track. And another promising growth area involves traditional finance, but with a twist that's only appeared in the last few years.

"You're getting brokerage firms and hedge funds relocating here every day, and they're telling us that they need people who have more financial savvy," Johnson says. "That's why the Master of Science in Finance (MSF) is one of the most powerful degrees out there."

Johnson says the key to giving MSF hopefuls a leg up begins with academics listening to employers. "We have a really great program that's driven by the industry," he said. "It's highly specialized and it brings together business sense and customer service; you have to learn how this unique industry works."

And MBAs who can distill complex concepts to simple terms increase their worth in the marketplace. "A really good speaker is worth his or her weight in gold," Johnson says. "If you can't boil the idea down to a three-minute speech without getting wonky, you are lost. You can never have too much in the way of communication skills."

Clark, who praises FAU for having a "phenomenal" MBA program, predicts "Fort Lauderdale and South Florida will continue to grow and develop new jobs at least over the next 10 to 15 years."

And if you're looking toward that future, Johnson says MBAs who add technology training to their curriculum will be better positioned than anyone to ride the high-tech wave of data modeling and analytics.

"Big data is going to be more important to business, even at a micro level with small businesses," he says. "In the past where they collected that data by hand, now it will come in spreadsheets someone will have to look at, understand and interpret."

So while the MBA in South Florida has a worth you can measure in dollars, it also marks an investment in career fulfillment and accomplishment with a value far beyond any price tag.

"When you get some form of a master's degree, you're really creating an option for yourself, because now you're on a different track " a corporate track you can't play without that degree," Johnson says. "And when you look 10 years out at those top-end jobs, you can't get there without that higher education."