TAMPA — Germany invests $4.13 billion in Florida annually, making it the state's second-largest foreign investor. German companies employ 22,000 in Florida. The country has the third-largest number of foreign-owned businesses (66) in Tampa Bay, behind the United Kingdom (77) and Canada (67).
But Bauer Foundations Inc. CEO Charles Puccini thinks that the bay area can do more than just profit from Germany — it can learn a lot, too.
"We produce graduates," he said. "The German system produces employees and entrepreneurs."
The German American Chamber of Commerce announced Thursday that it will have its Florida headquarters in Tampa. The GACC is a nonprofit that represents German industries across the country, and Puccini, whose company is a local subsidiary of a German corporation, will serve as the Florida chapter's first director.
The Florida chapter doesn't have a physical location and for now will be stocked with volunteers like Puccini.
One of his first goals will be to bridge Germany's "dual system" with Tampa Bay's educational system, Puccini said. In Germany, companies train their workers from the start with apprenticeships as they go through school. When they're done, the company has a ready-made employee.
But are German companies finding ready-made employees locally?
"No, not really," he said. "That is entirely the problem."
In the United States, Puccini complained, employees need to be trained after graduation. He acknowledged that cuts to local educational systems and the state university system aren't helping. Part of the solution, he said, lies in local businesses adopting the kind of mentoring programs that are common in Germany, like the program his company offers to high school juniors and seniors. Bauer is based in Odessa and specializes in underground construction, such as pilings, underground walls and basements.
But education will be just one of the jobs of the local GACC chapter. The other will be introducing the Tampa Bay area to German companies looking to expand and hire in this country.
Foreign business is crucial to Florida. The state is sixth in the nation in direct foreign investment and No. 1 in the southeastern United States. More than 1.3 million jobs in Florida are dependent on international trade.
That's why Thursday's announcement was made at Tampa International Airport, which is aiming to increase its share of foreign flights. Last year Edelweiss Air announced that it would offer nonstop flights from Tampa to Zurich, Switzerland. Germany is also key to Tampa International's future, said airport CEO Joe Lopano. Tampa is trying to attract nonstop flights to Germany, and Edelweiss Air is owned by German airline Lufthansa.
"This sends a very strong message that Tampa Bay is an international hub," said Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp. president Rick Homans. "I think it speaks to the great potential of our economic base."
"We all view Germany as a priority for us, for visitors, for direct flights, for foreign investment."
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said Thursday's announcement is another sign — along with August's Republican National Convention — that Florida no longer has two destination cities. It has three.
"When people think of Florida, they don't just think of Miami and Orlando," Buckhorn said. "They think of Tampa."
Jamal Thalji can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3404.