Can High-End Manufacturing Save Florida’s Economy?

I recently wrote this article for Gunster’s Boardroom Brief.

A serious mismatch of skills and job opportunities is occurring in our state and nation, according to recent articles. Namely, there appears to be an abundance of high-tech and high-pay manufacturing jobs available but not enough workers to fill the openings.

Yet, this situation offers an economic opportunity for our state. If Florida prepares its residents for jobs in high-end manufacturing, economic development and jobs will result, the articles indicate.

Globalization and unemployment: The downside of integrated markets by Michael Spence, published in Foreign Affairs Magazine, suggests that Florida’s economic development strategy should promote tradable sector enterprises such as high-end manufacturing, as these will likely be the primary source of U.S. job growth in years to come.

According to Spence, manufacturing is an example of the tradable sector, in which goods and services that can be consumed anywhere are produced. The nontradable sector, on the other hand, produces goods and services that must be consumed domestically, such as the health care, retail, construction, hotel and restaurant industries.

Spence’s reasoning suggests that Florida should continue to promote the tech sector’s growth but should also work to encourage sophisticated manufacturers to locate in Florida and grow their existing operations here. For more on Spence’s article and its relevance to Florida, please see my previous discussion on the topic.

But job creation is just one part of the employment equation. Sophisticated manufacturing operations in Florida are struggling to find employees, according to an article published in the Tampa Tribune last week.

Florida manufacturers have particular difficulty finding qualified machinists, described as “skilled technicians who operate lathes, mills and other cutting tools and can turn a raw cube of metal into, say, a finely grooved aircraft engine part.”

In the article, Roy Sweatman, president of aircraft component manufacturer Southern Manufacturing, says his company, which currently employs 110 people, would hire another dozen skilled workers if it could find them.

He attributes the dearth of qualified workers to an education system that focuses on preparing students for college while underemphasizing technical education. For example, Pinellas County has only one post-high school training program for machinists. Viable and lucrative job opportunities are out there, but students may not be aware of them. An instructor in the Pinellas County  program says he knows people that are making $22 to $27 dollars an hour, and working 40 to 60 hours a week.

Then again, many students see manufacturing work as uncool, according to $100K manufacturing jobs, published in on Monday. Manufacturers have some 600,000 vacancies nationwide, according to a recent Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte report.

In sum, high-end manufacturing could be a major source of economic development in Florida. However, to take full advantage of this opportunity, Florida must attract and train the skilled workers required by this sector.

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