The future of Florida’s manufacturing sector is one focused on increasing exports, leveraging a blossoming talent pipeline, and effectively shoring up a skills gap that has been plaguing not just their state but the rest of the country as well.

In a conversation with Steve Engelhardt of Industry Today, Nancy Stephens, Executive Director of the Manufacturers Association of Florida, talks about the many different programs enacted on behalf of Florida manufacturing as well as the teamwork displayed by executives of these companies and members of the state government in working together to boost the sector’s outlook for the future.

Expanding Exports
One of the main foundations of Florida manufacturing businesses is their ability to export. “The export business is our fertile field,” Stephens says, adding that, “those businesses that can export well allow themselves the ability to weather economic storms where they may not have been able to otherwise.”

She says that recently there have been various programs set up across the state to help smaller sized manufacturing businesses harness the benefits of exporting as well. “These programs we have set up help small business manufacturers get into new export markets, whether they’re new to exporting entirely or looking to do business in a new country.” She continued, adding, “these programs help them learn about these foreign markets, their economic landscape, so they know what they’re doing when they go on their first trade mission.”

Stephens says the growth experienced through these export programs highlight Florida manufacturing’s goal of “expanding the amount of business options each company has, no matter their size.”

The emphasis on sustaining small manufacturing businesses isn’t just limited to growing their export markets, as Stephens notes that a strong bond with the state’s logistics and trade sectors has produced a partnership based on strengthening small businesses’ efficiency in doing business overall. “The logistics and trade sectors have a clear understanding that they’re not going to fill up cargo ships unless we’re manufacturing goods. As a result, we have partnered hand-in-hand with them in supporting state policies and funding that allows our ports to get up to speed so that trade is not only increasing, but operating in a highly efficient manner.”

In regards to small businesses’ place in all of it, she continues, stating, ”we have a lot of small business manufacturers that may not be able to fill up an entire truck each day, but if they can assemble with some other manufacturers at a central location where they can combine to fill up a truck, then everyone saves time and money.”

Closing the Gap
A looming issue that hangs over Florida’s manufacturing sector is alleviating the skills gap that exists between companies and positions they need to fill. Stephens says that while the issue is still there, there have been numerous initiatives set in place to ensure it won’t be a problem in the future. “We heard for a number of years that Florida didn’t have the right talent, or enough skilled workers. However, last year our state has received a US Department of Labor grant of $15 million for 12 colleges to establish manufacturing programs and better strengthen the younger generation’s grasp of modern advanced manufacturing.”

Stephens says that her organization in particular is doing its part to build a broader, more enlightened talent pool. “The Manufacturers Association of Florida is working with regional manufacturing associations to place manufacturers on college manufacturing advisory councils, setting up speaker bureaus for students and manufacturers, hosting job fairs, and will have offered over 1,500 internships with various manufacturing companies in the next three years.”

But Florida manufacturing companies aren’t just looking to boost initiatives at the college level, as evidenced by the national Dream To Do It program embraced in Florida that focuses on high schools. Under the program, manufacturers “adopt” high schools around the state and then send executives to go speak at these schools or take students around their plants for tours. The overarching goal is to clear up any misconceptions about modern manufacturing and display an industry that isn’t about dirty factories and rough labor, but rather one about utilizing clean, advanced technology for the development of products that have a big impact on our everyday lives.

However, with almost a quarter (24.5 percent) of manufacturing workers over the age range of 55 or older, time is running out.

“It all comes down to sparking the interest of students at a younger age, and we’re setting up the programs that hopefully will do so. I think we’re going to see a very different picture five years from now,” says Stephens.

Backed by the Governor
Stephens said that one of the biggest catalysts in getting the ball rolling for many of these manufacturing programs is Gov. Rick Scott. Since taking office over two years ago, Stephens said Scott has been a champion for the manufacturing scene, especially in terms of attracting and retaining businesses in the state.

“Governor Scott has been willing to personally pick up the phone and talk to any business thinking about entering or leaving the state. It’s really given us a boost in terms of getting meaningful voices behind our programs and businesses,” she says.

Governor Scott has also headed up numerous trade missions for Florida, as well as placing a top priority on removing the sales tax on manufacturing machinery and equipment. His legislative proposal was passed this year and will go into effect in April 2014 for the next three years.

Moving Forward
The future of Florida’s manufacturing sector appears to be under control, as does the present scene of it. As of September 2013, there were 18,425 manufacturing establishments located throughout the state, leading to a total of 316,300 jobs in manufacturing, accounting for 4.2 percent of total employment in Florida. Stephens says that jobs in the manufacturing sector have been up or remained stable for the past 4 months.

On top of this, the average wage for workers in Florida is $43,210, while the average employee in manufacturing is making $53,284. Ranked by industry, manufacturing provides the third-highest salary behind information services ($66,794) and finances ($61,400).

Manufacturing in Florida continues to be strong, it’s just a matter of making sure the Sunshine State can keep things running smoothly into the future as one generation retires and another takes its place.

About the Manufacturers Association of Florida
The Manufacturers Association of Florida (MAF) was organized in 2006 to improve Florida’s manufacturing business climate. MAF is comprised of manufacturers and those who serve them who want to set the direction for manufacturing policy. Priority issues are determined by the Board, based on input from MAF members, committees and Board members. MAF has three committees: Executive, Government Affairs, and Workforce & Education.


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