Tuesday, February 20, 2018
Business

Tampa Bay manufacturing lags but shows new life

Over 24 years, Joanne and Bob McIntyre built their Largo manufacturing company, Ditek Corp., into one of Tampa Bay's little engines that could.

The couple have weathered recessions and expanded beyond making surge protectors to contract manufacturing of industrial, medical and military devices. With demand for surge protectors increasing as much as 15 percent this year, Ditek is adding to its 86-employee roster.

"We're going into our busy season and we're hiring as often as we can find gifted folks," Joanne McIntyre said.

If only the bay area had more Diteks. A lot more.

Tampa Bay has never been known as a manufacturing mecca, but a report released today underscores just how much the region lags both in the number of manufacturing jobs and in what they pay.

Only 5 percent of Tampa Bay's economy revolves around manufacturing. That's far lower than the 8.5 percent average for most metro areas, according to a report on metro manufacturing trends by the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

One way to look at it: If Tampa Bay's manufacturing sector was as pivotal here as it is in most metro areas, it would be about 35 percent bigger and pump another $3 billion or so into the economy. On the wages side, the report indicates that Tampa Bay manufacturers tend to pay less than the average in other metro areas, be it in high-tech, moderately high-tech or all manufacturing jobs.

Steve Meitzen, president of the Bay Area Manufacturers Association, thinks the latest snapshot from Brookings is misleading, in part because industries like tourism and leisure play an outsized role here.

"There is a general observation that manufacturing is non-existent in this area, which is just not the case," he said. "Look at how many people have left large manufacturing jobs up north and come to Florida and started a 15-man shop."

Tampa Bay manufactures everything from plastic molding and medical equipment to flight simulators and etching equipment used to make semiconductor chips. Among well-known players are Jabil Circuit (electronics) and Aerosonic (aircraft instruments). Its top manufacturing sectors include computers and electronics (17 percent) and fabricated metals (9 percent).

There have been numerous attempts over the decades to increase manufacturing in the region. A common lament is that too many young workers disregard manufacturing as a career, unaware of the growth and wage potential.

In Oldsmar, veteran manufacturer Dick Peck is spearheading the latest efforts of the Florida Manufacturing Extension Partnership to help smaller manufacturers find workers.

Here's one encouraging sign: Between January 2010 and December 2011, Tampa Bay posted a 3.6 percent increase in manufacturing jobs, compared with a 2.7 percent increase among other metro areas.

Allen Brinkman, president and CEO of SunTrust Bank's regional operation, thinks that recent uptick is only growing.

Many of SunTrust's manufacturing clients — including "nearly every medical device company we bank right now" — are posting higher revenues, he said. "We are tracking an average 46 percent increase in manufacturing lending over the past two years."

Brinkman concedes the area has a long way to go to make manufacturing more central to its economy, "but we're moving in the right direction."

Aerospace historically has been one of the area's top manufacturing industries. But political squabbles in Washington have hurt the return of aero jobs, said Meitzen of the Bay Area Manufacturing Association.

"Aerospace-related manufacturing could be a boom to this area if we could get back to things like passing a federal budget or letting NASA and the Defense Department plan on what their expenditures could be," he said.

One way for manufacturing to regain its footing hinges on bringing back jobs that have been moved offshore in pursuit of cheaper labor outside the United States. The list of companies that have already brought back jobs is growing — Caterpillar, Whirlpool, Ford.

And, back in Largo, the much smaller Ditek Corp.

Ten years ago, the company made many of its products in Asia. Now, most of its manufacturing has shifted back to Florida. Patriotism aside, the decision makes business sense, company owners say.

"If you manufacture something overseas, you can't adapt to changes quickly," Ditek's Bob McIntyre said. "We have complete control over our product and we can adapt overnight. That is a big key in our U.S. manufacturing."

Between bringing back jobs and automating more to keep up with technology, the McIntyres think Ditek and other local production companies with a similar strategy will be here for the long haul.

"We firmly believe that manufacturing is alive and well in Pinellas County, Florida," Joanne McIntyre said.

Jeff Harrington can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8242.

 
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