With a state jobless rate now stalled for three straight months at 10.7 percent, Florida is as obsessed as ever with finding ways to create more jobs. Florida's manufacturers — folks who actually make stuff rather than run cash registers or serve food — insist their industry can help by delivering higher-wage jobs, improving exports and helping to counter the downward and dangerous wage spiral under way in the Sunshine State.
All the manufacturers ask for is a little respect, which has proved hard to come by.
Dick Peck wants to change that.
The veteran manufacturer runs a precision machining business in Oldsmar called QTM Inc. He also chairs the Florida Manufacturing Extension Partnership, or MEP. It's part of a national effort affiliated with the U.S. Department of Commerce to boost the country's competitiveness by helping smaller manufacturers. Peck is also active in the Florida work force alliance boards trying to match job needs with work force training.
"This economy cannot come back based on home construction," Peck says. "It's got to include manufacturing."
We've heard this pitch before, as Peck readily admits. The manufacturing sector suffers from a public relations problem and a lack of political clout. Too many folks view manufacturing as a dirty-fingernail job option for those who can't or won't go to college. Peck laments that many manufacturing managers in Florida are too busy (and perhaps too uncomfortable) to lobby for more attention and resources from state economic development officials and legislators who often have little or no background in the industry.
In a world where the squeaky wheel gets the grease, manufacturers should be reaching for the phone to talk up their industry more often.
To legitimize the merits of making things, the Florida MEP helped fund a report this year extolling the virtues of manufacturing's better pay and work force skills. The report was presented to the board of Enterprise Florida — the state's economic development arm — and Gov. Rick Scott.
The report, called Manufacturing: An Economic Driver for Jobs and Florida's Future, was written by Florida TaxWatch economist Jerry Parrish.
It concludes: "Manufacturing is a significant provider of high-wage and high value-added jobs in the state; however, Florida is lagging behind in manufacturing investment due to significant, identifiable barriers."
The report warns that Florida has the lowest per-capita capital expenditures on manufacturing among the 12 Southern states. It is losing to competing states in capital investment in manufacturing.
Low capital investment results partially from the way the state taxes manufacturers, including their machinery and equipment. And Florida economic development incentive programs such as the Qualified Tax Incentive (QTI) or Capital Investment Tax Credit (CITC) are poorly targeted toward manufacturing and are ineffective at attracting many manufacturing industries, the report finds.
Peck says Florida MEP surveyed Florida manufacturers and found that 7,000 starter jobs were open, despite high unemployment. That's because businesses could not find people with the right skills to hire.
Peck points to a "mobile outreach skills training," or MOST, program as one effort to help reduce that huge mismatch. MOST reaches out to people seeking to retrain in those manufacturing skills now in the greatest demand.
"My No. 1 goal is to get people back to work," Peck says.
Peck is critical of too many work force training programs that teach people to do tasks that nobody needs. Why learn how to become an X-ray technician, he says, when so many hospitals don't need those workers right now?
One big pro-manufacturing argument is that Florida needs to make stuff worthy and competitive enough to export. Otherwise, what does the Sunshine State have to offer on the international trade circuit? Phosphate for fertilizer is a big export, but that won't last forever. And that is a commodity pulled from the ground — not some higher-valued product created here with advanced manufacturing skills.
In his jobs speech earlier this month, President Obama told a joint session of Congress that America's days as a maker of things are not over.
"We're going to make sure the next generation of manufacturing takes root not in China or Europe, but right here in the United States of America," he said.
Peck hopes that's more than just a line from a political speech. He's flush with ideas to raise manufacturing's image in Florida. He wants to involve schools — everybody from USF College of Engineering dean John Wiencek to Pinellas County schools — to get more young people exposed to in-your-hands manufacturing. He wants technical training schools to get higher visibility and align more with community college systems.
And Peck is hopeful that both the governor and the state's new front man for job creation, Florida Commerce Secretary Gray Swoope, will help reinvigorate the role of manufacturing.
Mark Vitner, a Wells Fargo economist, last week argued in an economic report that Florida "needs to find some new economic growth drivers."
Vitner could not be more on target.
So how about giving manufacturing a little respect?
Robert Trigaux can be reached at [email protected]