MANATEE -- An under-skilled labor force has become the top deterrent preventing area manufacturers from ramping up their hiring, employers said.
A widening skills gap between the positions available and candidate qualifications has weighed on the region's recovery by stalling growth in one of the largest employment sectors in Manatee and Sarasota.
The trend has forced manufacturers in recent years to put expansion plans on ice, curbing production and ultimately their bottom line. The same training problems have prevented the area's jobless from reentering the workforce.
Of more than 100 area manufacturers surveyed, 56 percent reported an existing skills gap of three years or longer, according to CareerEdge Funders Collaborative, an employment training agency that receives private and public funding.
The agency has scheduled a panel discussion with industry stakeholders Sept. 27 to fully detail its findings and vet a potential solution.
"We're talking about a lot of jobs," CareerEdge Executive Director Mireya Eavey said. "We have a lot of work to do. We have a lot of marketing to do. This is a call to manufacturers that we understand their
challenge. Now we need their commitment."
The agency began talking to manufacturers in May from small three-man operations to publicly traded corporations that employ thousands.
The message from each was the same. There's just not enough skills in the present labor pool to meet the jobs now in demand, even despite the 28,125 jobless workers between Manatee and Sarasota that produced a regional unemployment rate of 9.3 percent in July.
The conversation first started on the U.S. scale six years ago, when the National Association of Manufacturers found that 40 percent of workers in the industry lacked the skills to match their job description. Employers estimate the situation in Manatee likely is more dire.
They point to a mix of a negative misconceptions attached to the industry and a lack of viable training with local institutions.
"Part of it is the industry has done a bad job of marketing itself as a career path, with parents discouraging their children to seek opportunities," said Jennifer Behrens Schmidt, president of Atlantic Mold and Machining Corp. "Most of the workers in the field are getting old, they're close to retirement, and there's no replacements lined up."
More than 500 manufacturers operate between Manatee and Sarasota, employing about 12,800 workers at a median wage of $43,000, records show.
As technology in the field advances and more jobs require high-skilled certifications, Schmidt said area training programs have failed to keep pace.
Most specialized manufacturers offer in-house training on their own facilities and equipment. But companies are looking for workers who have the foundation of how basic manufacturing is done.
Because manufacturing draws outside investment into a region, industry stakeholders stress its importance to the local economy.
Across Florida, the industry contributes about 5 percent to the state's gross domestic product.
They fear if the workforce is not poised for economic progress, Florida will fall behind other Sunbelt states competing for economic development.
"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to look at this and say we need more manufacturing jobs," said Peter Straw, executive director of the Sarasota Manatee Manufacturers Association. "And the trend will only continue."
Josh Salman, Herald business writer, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @JoshSalman.