The machines at Jeff Roth's factory in Spring Hill can automatically crank out just about any imaginable part and, while they're at it, practically print money.
His dozen machines, housed in a factory at Brooksville-Tampa Bay Regional Airport's industrial park, are almost the size of pickup trucks.
Line up a row of metal rods back where the bed would be, and the machines do the rest: consuming these rods one by one as the hours pass, cutting them to the right length — 2 or 5 or 8 inches — drilling however many holes are needed, carving in threads or a hexagonal top, and then spitting out the finished valve, or gun part, or some insignificant-looking doodad that might handle a job like moving the wing flaps on a Boeing passenger liner.
This kind of operation is called computer numerical control machining and, from that high-tech name and from watching the operation at Roth's 13-year-old company, Chasco Machine & Manufacturing, you might think it's all about the equipment.
And you would be wrong.
Because often the only guidance Chasco gets from its clients — which include Boeing and the gunmaker Colt — are sets of plans. Before the machines can start running, Chasco has to come up with the computer programs that tell them how to produce the parts. Just as important, a set-up worker has to adjust the machine's drill bits so they will bore at the right depth, and the lathes so they will trim the parts to the precise diameter.
While that "set-up guy," as Roth calls them, is at work, the machine stands idle. And when it is idle it is not making money but absorbing it. There are loan payments to be made on these pieces of equipment, which can cost as much as $500,000, and tangible taxes to be paid.
The profit margins in his business are so thin, said Roth, 52, that if a worker requires eight hours to do a set-up that should take three, "we end up doing the job for free."
So, really, his business is not just about machines. It's about workers. The kind of skilled workers that Roth has had to train on the job.
As Hernando Business, a special section in today's Tampa Bay Times, takes its annual look at the state of the county's businesses, this need stands out.
If Hernando County is going to change its economy and shed its reliance on the housing industry, it needs restaurant workers who not only know how to cook but how to meet health code requirements. It needs all manner of medical workers. And it needs people who know how to handle themselves on a factory floor.
We've reported about the need for a more highly trained workforce. So I went to Chasco to see exactly how the scarcity of vocational programs can cost businesses, discourage companies from moving here, and, on the global level, slow the flow of manufacturing that is starting to return to the United States.
It turned out I got another lesson from Roth, who told me he was able to build his business with only high school vocational training as a machinist in Elkhart, Ind.
That got us reminiscing about growing up in industrial states in the 1970s, and the opportunities available to kids who might not have been able to write an English paper but who could soup up a Ford Maverick so it could outrun a Mustang.
There seemed to be more vocational training available for mechanically gifted kids then and more emphasis on identifying and placing them. Roth's former teacher recently told him he had been able to find machining jobs for more than 500 of his students; about 20 of them went on to start their own companies, including Roth, who now employs 31 workers at Chasco who make nearly $20 an hour.
It makes you think about all the unemployed — and underemployed — young people who could be doing this work if they had the training.
What a waste of talent. What a failure on the part of our educational system that we can't capitalize on all this potential.
Recently, most of the news on this front has been bad. The county's business development manager, Mike McHugh, has been trying to work with the school district to offer evening classes in adult technical education at Nature Coast Technical High School.
Three classes had been scheduled to start last month. But largely because of a lack of marketing on the part of the schools, the only class that filled up teaches basic word processing.
Fortunately, it turns out, Pasco-Hernando Community College is stepping up with an 80-hour manufacturing class that allows students to earn certification as production technicians.
It starts May 20 and costs $1,100, though grants are available to partly reimburse employers who enroll workers.
It won't teach students the specialized skills that many of Chasco's workers need, but it will teach them about the need for safety.
It will emphasize the need to organize tools and work efficiently.
It will get the message across that whether a company makes money or loses it can be up to them, the workers.