TOWN 'N COUNTRY
That's the message from the Upper Tampa Bay Manufacturers Association, with one caveat.
Roy Sweatman, president of Southern Manufacturing Technologies, a Town 'N Country-based manufacturer of components for aerospace and defense industries, serves on the association's board of directors and is hopeful the group can address the skills gap that is plaguing the industry.
"The lack of skilled labor is really what is keeping us from growing," he said.
Roy is not alone in his concern. A 2013 survey of 109 manufacturers in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties found that 40 percent were experiencing limited growth due to a lack of skilled labor.
Shannon Sweatman, Roy's daughter and Southern Manufacturing's director of human resources, said part of the problem is that people are not aware there are manufacturing jobs to be had even though the area that spans northwest Hillsborough and northeast Pinellas is home to more than 400 manufacturers.
"People don't even know manufacturing exists in this area," Shannon Sweatman said. "We do a lot of school tours with students who don't know that manufacturing is an option, because it is not being presented to them."
And when they present the information, they stress that the pay can rate above retail and hospitality jobs.
"We have part-time college students making $14 to $15 an hour in two to three years," Roy Sweatman said. "We had a kid that came out of East Lake High School and started working part-time while attending USF. He's been here three or four years. Last year, he made $60,000."
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Upper Tampa Bay's connection to manufacturing has roots dating to 1913, when Oldsmobile pioneer Ransom Eli Olds first envisioned the area as a hotbed of industry. In a time before causeways and bridges, Olds recognized the area's prime location en route from Tampa to St. Petersburg and set out to establish a working-class community in present-day Oldsmar.
The community failed to thrive as Olds had hoped, but the seeds of industry had been planted.
Today, the region has regained its appeal due to its central location amid Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties, as well as its proximity to Port Tampa Bay and Tampa International Airport.
The area now includes companies that produce everything from medical devices to aerospace components among its 400-plus manufacturers, and their success has a tremendous impact on the local economy. Each manufacturing job created results in the creation of an additional 2.65 jobs, according to an economic impact analysis from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.
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To help ensure the manufacturing sector is getting the local support it needs, the Upper Tampa Bay Chamber of Commerce developed the manufacturers association. Association director Jerry Custin explained that manufacturers typically serve a national, and often global, customer base and rarely see the need to become involved with their local chamber. He is attempting to change that mind-set.
"I say to them, 'We understand that you don't need the classic networking and the mixing and the mingling, but you sure do need access to the grants, the incentives, the education community … let's focus on those,' " Custin said.
"What they are offering is hyper-local and super plugged-in," said Greg Blosé, grass roots and engagement manager for the Florida Chamber of Commerce.
"There are other organizations in the area that support manufacturers, but I don't know of another chamber in Florida that is doing what they are doing," he said.
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Still, the need for skilled labor remains, and the state and county have responded by launching a number of steps, including the American Manufacturing Skills Initiative in Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando counties and the Manufacturing Academy in Hillsborough County.
"There is still not enough happening," Roy Sweatman said.
Shannon Sweatman has made it a priority to reach out to area schools, not only to call attention to local opportunities in manufacturing, but also to educate students about the increasingly technical nature of manufacturing jobs.
"Manufacturing technology has improved so much that I've heard people term it a 'blue-tech' field," Shannon Sweatman said. "We really need higher-skilled people than ever before. People with math skills and an understanding of programming, even at the production level."
What they do not necessarily need are employees with a college degree, and that is a point both Sweatmans are quick to emphasize.
"There are kids that are kinetic learners that may not necessarily do well in school, but if they work with their hands, they do well," Roy Sweatman said.
Added Shannon Sweatman: "I think if we can get a clear, consistent message to kids from a young age, letting them know manufacturing is an option, it would be really valuable."
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Custin said Southern Manufacturing's work with bay area students is precisely the type of local initiative he hopes to foster.
The Upper Tampa Bay Manufacturers Association is currently reaching out to other manufacturing groups in the area, including the Bay Area Manufacturers Association, the Society of Manufacturing Engineers and area leaders in the packaging field. The goal is to create a unified voice to promote the growth of manufacturing in Upper Tampa Bay and beyond.
The first item on the agenda will be to address training and workforce development.
Contact Karen Ring at [email protected]