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Thriving with Technology: Region’s Future in Manufacturing Looks Strong


Orlando is not usually the first city that springs to mind when you think of manufacturing hubs in the United States. It’s not like Detroit, known for producing automobiles, or Pittsburgh, once known for steel, or Jacksonville, once known for paper. Yet research shows Central Florida is experiencing more job growth in manufacturing than any other major metropolitan area in the country.

A study released earlier this year shows the region has seen 23.6 percent growth in manufacturing jobs since 2012 — about 7.9 percent of that in 2017, according to California researchers Joel Kotkin and Michael Shires. Their work appears on Newgeography.com, and this latest research was featured in a Forbes magazine article in May titled, “Where U.S. Manufacturing is Thriving in 2018.”

“The vast majority of Americans are more likely to associate the Orlando metro area with Mickey Mouse than Rosie the Riveter, but Orlando-Kissimmee-Sanford is tops in manufacturing job growth among the 71 largest metros,” the article read. “Large companies including Lockheed Martin, Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems Americas and Siemens Energy have brought advanced manufacturing jobs to the Orlando area, as well as a host of smaller firms.”

That’s exactly what Sherry Reeves has observed. In her 12 years as executive director of the Manufacturers Association of Central Florida (MACF), she has watched small companies grow and new ones form — many of them to support larger operations like Lockheed Martin’s plant in Orlando that builds advanced combat systems for the military. Two-thirds of the region’s manufacturing companies have fewer than 20 employees, compared with about 75 percent nationally and 80 percent statewide.

“We have a lot of manufacturers that produce electronic and other advanced component parts which go into larger products and systems,” Reeves said. “Most of ours are small to midsize family-run manufacturers.”

Manufacturing Clusters

Central Florida is home to more than 1,700 manufacturers out of 20,000 statewide. What’s being manufactured here? Everything from electronic components to medical devices to foods and more.

There are clusters of types of manufacturing throughout the region, including one Reeves has been tracking closely: recreation and entertainment. She points to several makers of boats, theme park rides and video games. That sector is growing along with Orlando’s reputation as the most popular tourist destination in the U.S.

The area is seeing growth in “advanced manufacturing,” which uses innovative technologies to create existing as well as new products. Last year, the public-private partnership BRIDG opened an advanced manufacturing facility in Osceola County that will be the cornerstone of a hub called NeoCity.

“With more than 37,000 people employed in advanced manufacturing, or 63 percent of the manufacturing workforce,” the report read, “this sector represents a much higher share of manufacturing employment than it does in the national or state economies and is more likely to contribute to regional innovation and provide higher-wage jobs.”

Charting the Growth

Central Florida and the rest of the state are expected to see continued growth in manufacturing, experts say. “Florida is well positioned due to its lack of income taxes, reasonable housing prices and generally pro-development policies,” the Forbes article read. “Manufacturing employment in the state had risen for 86 straight months through February.”

MACF has promoted the industry in Central Florida for 27 years through workshops, grant opportunities, networking and plant tours. In 2016, MACF became part of a larger network of Florida’s manufacturing associations to form FloridaMakes, whose mission is to strengthen and advance manufacturing on a statewide level.

In July, FloridaMakes produced a first-of-its-kind summit in Orlando that gathered manufacturers, government, academia and other organizations that all share a stake in advancing Florida’s manufacturing economy. “The basic idea was to bring together Florida’s manufacturing ecosystem to begin a dialogue and formulate strategies on how together we can collectively leverage each other’s assets, expertise and resources to further advance the competitiveness of our manufacturing sector,” said Kevin Carr, CEO of FloridaMakes.

“While we’re doing well in manufacturing, we have a long way to go,” Carr said. “A real measure of manufacturing performance is productivity, or how much output we get from each employee. We look at gross domestic product per employee. In Florida, we’re a little bit below the national average.”

“If Florida can get to the national average of about $176,886 of value-added output per employee, instead of closer to $141,616 where it sits now, that will equal growth of about $12.6 billion to the state economy, he said, referring to 2016 figures.

“We’re almost near full employment, so how do you get more out of the people you have? You get that by integrating technology into that mix, and by stronger participation in our supply chains,” Carr said. “It’s great to have large anchor companies like a SpaceX or a Lockheed Martin in our state, yet a great deal of the value-added going into their products and systems is produced outside of the state. We need to capture a larger share of the value produced in those and many other supply chains within the state, nationally, as well as internationally.”

Carr points to a company in Central Florida where workers took four hours to weld a part. The company automated part of the process, installing a robotic welding system that reduced that task to 40 minutes per part. “That’s a significant enhancement for the output from that one company,” Carr said. “If you’re producing the same amount in one-tenth of the time, you’re enhancing productivity.”

Turning Jobs into Careers

The key is to continue developing the workforce for the higher-paying jobs that come with incorporating the latest technology into manufacturing, Reeves said. She and her organization are working with local manufacturers to educate them about what’s happening in manufacturing so they can adapt to this new era.

MACF also is working to educate young people about the benefits of pursuing manufacturing as a career. In this industry, she says, people can learn the skills required as long as they bring one key trait to the job.

“Attitude takes you everywhere,” she says. People with no experience can start in manufacturing at $12 an hour. Employers often pay for continued education for people who show up for work and do a good job.”

“A lot of these manufacturers will help these young people get retooled,” she says. “You’re going to move faster up the ladder and make more money than you would if you started off at a theme park or a fast-food restaurant. It’s not a job, it’s a career path.”

About the author

Diane Sears

Diane Sears

A career journalist, author and advocate for business growth, Diane Sears is the editor-in-chief of i4 Business. She is the founder and president of DiVerse Media LLC and co-founder of the Go for the Greens Foundation, which helps connect current and future women business owners with growth opportunities. She also serves in leadership roles with the Women Presidents’ Organization, Women’s Business Development Council of Florida/Women’s Business Enterprise National Council, and Athena PowerLink.

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