Florida isn't known for manufacturing.
The state has built a reputation for aerospace and biomedical manufacturing, but that accounts for only about 4 percent of the state's jobs, less than half the national rate and one of the lowest in the country. And images of big factories don't jive with images of Florida as a tourist haven full of beaches and orange groves.
Still, the manufacturing industry wants to be heard here, and Florida's central role in the presidential election drew a visit recently from the head of the National Association of Manufacturers, an industry trade group that is among the most well-heeled advocacy groups in Washington.
Jay Timmons, the association's president, visited with business leaders at Port Tampa Bay to promote the group's agenda, saying he hoped presidential candidates would make manufacturing a priority as they swing through the state.
The Tampa Bay Times sat down with Timmons and Tom Feeney, a former Florida House speaker and president of the Associated Industries of Florida, the association's state affiliate.
Florida isn't particularly known for manufacturing. So, why are you here?
Timmons: Florida is obviously a very key state in a national election year like this one, and we want to make sure that as folks start to focus on Florida that the candidates who are here are talking about the imperative for a strong manufacturing agenda that will obviously grow the economy and create jobs.
Feeney: … Florida is a little bit unique in that when I first got elected to the state House, manufacturing wasn't a priority for many policymakers. We were basically agribusiness, so citrus and the orange state. We were tourism. And in some ways, manufacturing was seen as inconsistent — trucks and dirt and pollution issues. And finally it was building communities, especially retirement communities, none of which lent itself naturally to being a primary spot to do serious manufacturing. What's changed is the jobs have become much more high-tech, sophisticated, high-paying.
What challenges are unique to Florida?
Feeney: Most of the challenges Florida has are similar to national manufacturers, whether it's the skills gap or competitive energy pricing or whether it's fighting off unreasonable mandates by the Department of Labor. … Florida has some unique aspects. On the downside, we've got unique water issues. Our state is different than the other states. When the EPA mandates were talked about, most of my (manufacturing advocacy) colleagues in 49 states, they're thinking about coal emissions and air. Florida thinks first and foremost about the threats from the EPA of micromanaging our water. But just like we have challenges, we have opportunities. There are great manufacturing states that don't have any deep water ports, let alone 14. … The governor is in the right spot, we've got great legislative leadership, and we really see nothing but upside for manufacturing in Florida.
Timmons: And that leadership matters. I mean, if a state is serious about growing the manufacturing base, it's because the governor is setting the agenda, setting the tone. And from our perspective, we want a president that's doing exactly that. There's a tremendous amount of competition for our jobs and investment in other countries, and we want to keep them here.
How much can elected officials really do to attract industry?
Timmons: Manufacturers want to go where the cost of doing business is the most competitive. So you've got this national cost structure that you've got to deal with, and then you're going to look at the differences between the states and what you can find in those states. And yes, incentives are one piece of that puzzle. Taxes are another, the cost of regulations are another, the cost of energy is another. But significantly, and I'm hearing it more and more everywhere in the country, it's really the workforce. Are the primary and secondary (schools), as well as the institutions of higher education, focusing on the right curriculum to be able to train prospective employees? Manufacturing today … is very technology-infused, technology-driven, and there's a need for science and technology and engineering and mathematics on the technological side of it. It's far more than I think really anybody, far more than many folks had thought was going to be necessary this soon. The advances are just continuing at a dizzying pace. If you look at the "Internet of things" and how that's now being infused into almost everything in our lives, including every manufacturing process and manufactured device, it's pretty important to have those skill sets to be able to deal with it.
Contact Thad Moore at email@example.com or (813) 226-3434. Follow @thadmoore.