LAKEWOOD RANCH -- New England Machinery has been hiring for some time now.
The packaging machine maker in Bradenton is trying to fill eight openings, and with fewer than 50 employees, the inability to do so has begun to wear on production.
The manufacturer has tried local job fairs. It has taken out ads. The company even filed a posting with Craigslist.
Despite a job market where the unemployment rate flirts with double-digits, a growing number of local manufacturers say they're struggling to find qualified employees.
They point to a widening skills gap in the labor force -- a concerning trend many now believe has become the largest hurdle preventing industry growth.
"We have a very difficult time finding employees because we're a small company, and we don't have our own HR department," said Marge Bonura, the company's director of sales and marketing. "It really does hurt the manufacturers in this area."
New England Machinery was one of a handful of companies represented during a skills gap presentation Thursday at Gold Coast Eagle Distributing in Lakewood Ranch, where CareerEdge released a study on the issue.
The employment help agency polled 125 companies between Manatee and Sarasota
through phone and Internet questionnaires this spring.
Of those surveyed, 71 percent reported a skills gap in the workforce, and 69 percent of those said the problem has existed for three or more years.
The biggest shortages came in skilled production at 38 percent, followed by engineering at 18 percent and sales at 11 percent.
The survey has a 7 percent margin of error.
"We listened to employers," CareerEdge Executive Director Mireya Eavey said. "They came to us and said we have these challenges. We're in a new market, we have new equipment, we need to train employees and train them today."
There were 28,125 jobless workers in Manatee and Sarasota last month for a regional unemployment rate of 9.3 percent not taking seasonality into account, according to the labor department.
But a lack of available schooling, poor marketing and industry misconceptions have shied younger demographics away from manufacturing -- leaving no replacements for the older workers now nearing retirement.
More than 500 manufacturers operate between Manatee and Sarasota, employing about 12,800 workers at a median wage of $43,000, records show.
Many of those are high-skilled jobs that require certifications, strong math and basic knowledge of how machine operation works.
"Manufacturers look at employees as an investment," said Al Stimac, president of the Florida Manufacturers Association and owner of Metal Essence Inc. near Sanford. "If I hire somebody who has been trained, has the credentials, my risk is much less."
Stimac called on the area to develop a program in the high schools where students are guaranteed a job upon graduation. A similar 15-week track in Orlando feeds most of his new hires.
Even though colleges and other technical institutes offer manufacturing courses, the material just isn't evolving to keep pace with the industry -- especially with automations and robotics, he said.
Because the local companies also are so specialized, there's no common thread, like automotive in Detroit, to pull it all together.
"Institutions live on outdated equipment manufacturers donated 10 years ago," Stimac said. "That's not going to cut it."
Another part of the problem lies with the perception that manufacturing is an "old and dirty" industry.
Parents no longer encourage the career, and students think the route means lousy pay.
"I don't think a lot of moms sit around the table in the morning and say if you don't eat a good breakfast, you won't get a job in manufacturing," Bradenton Mayor Wayne Poston said with a smile.
Across Florida, 14,000 manufacturers are now operating, making it the 13th largest state for the industry. More than three-fourths of those employers have less than 50 workers.
Although manufacturers couldn't put an estimated tally to the number of jobs created if the local 71 percent skills gap was erased, about 600,000 industry job openings across the country now sit unfilled.
"To hire has been absolutely dreadful," said John Mancini, director of operations for PGT Industries. "Sometimes we have to look out of state."
Josh Salman, Herald business writer, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @JoshSalman.