Blue-collar talent is too scarce locally, execs say

Published: Wednesday, October 16, 2013 at 10:34 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, October 16, 2013 at 10:34 p.m.

Against the backdrop of a documentary that shows the importance of buying American-made products to improve American communities, local manufacturing executives on Wednesday night described the challenges of running their businesses in Gainesville and the opportunities to grow the industry here.

During a discussion at the Hippodrome Theatre, a panel of industry representatives said they face a shortage of skilled workers, lack of political support, high energy costs and lack of air travel options as obstacles to growth.

The talk followed a screening of "American Made Movie," a documentary that shows the devastating effects of globalization on American manufacturing communities and encourages consumers to look beyond just prices in selecting which products to buy. It was hosted by the Advanced Manufacturing Association of North Central Florida, the Council for Economic Outreach and the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce.

Manufacturing makes up a small part of the local economy. Close to 200 manufacturing companies in Alachua and Gilchrist counties employ a little more than 4,000 workers for 3.5 percent of the workforce compared with 4.2 percent statewide and 8.9 percent nationwide, said moderator Susan Davenport, vice president of economic development for the chamber.

But the chamber has seen a surge in interest from manufacturers considering moving or expanding here, she said. Among the chamber's economic development projects, 13 manufacturers with the potential to add 455 jobs have shown an interest while another nine manufacturers with 678 jobs are considering expanding or remaining here.

Davenport credited the increased interest to global economic changes and to Gov. Rick Scott's recruitment efforts.

The manufacturers that are already here said they have trouble finding skilled workers and need a better trained workforce.

John Perry, CEO of drone manufacturer Altavian, said there are too many engineers here and not enough people with hands-on skills working with machines or composites.

"These are blue-collar jobs that are really critical and require a tremendous amount of talent," he said. "This is a talent and skill with your hands that is incredibly hard to find nationwide."

Brian Soucek, human resources manager of chemical manufacturer SiVance, said the local education system does a great job preparing kids who are on a college track but not others.

"What are those kids doing that aren't going to college? Are we preparing them for these high-tech manufacturing jobs? I don't think we are," he said.

Angela Pate, chief information officer of FloridaWorks, said each employer has such specific skill needs that it is impossible to offer training in a school setting. She touted the Healthcare Biomanufacturing Occupational and Technology Training program that uses federal grant funds to reimburse companies that provide on-the-job training.

Davenport said that what's needed from an economic development standpoint is a cluster of companies that do similar things so employees can move between companies.

Ryan Loftus, engineering manager at surgical implant manufacturer Exactech, said government regulations bring additional challenges. For example, he said Gainesville requires UL product safety listings on equipment that are not required everywhere.

"From our own government perspective, we're not competing on a level playing field," he said. "Our counterparts that we compete against don't have the same obstacles."

Perry said rising energy costs in Gainesville are one of the biggest issues for his business.

"That's certainly something that needs to be addressed, period. I don't care how it's done," he said.

Soucek said Gainesville and Alachua County can make it easier for manufacturers.

"Do they want manufacturing here? If not, we're going to just keep rowing harder to get where we've been," he said.

"It doesn't have to be so hard, and the community and the overall area will be much better off economically," Soucek said.

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