Friday's unemployment report underscores the rising star of Manatee County's economic development - manufacturing. With a 3.1 percent growth rate in that sector of the job market, Manatee topped the overall statewide number.
That growth should continue with the ongoing success of the Manatee Economic Development Corp., which so far this year helped five manufacturers either locate or expand in the county. Over the past three years, more than half of the 52 EDC-assisted relocations and expansions featured manufacturing-related jobs.
While Manatee's jobless figure plunged to 8 percent in April from 8.7 percent in March, the news is tempered by the number of people who dropped out of the workforce -- almost 2,000 here. While economists can only speculate about the reasons, one study indicates that a majority are retiring baby boomers.
Manatee bested both Sarasota (8.6 percent) and Florida (8.7 percent) in the unemployment report.
While the tourism industry enjoys an outstanding surge, with Manatee shattering visitation records last year and on pace for another big year, the expansion of manufacturing will diversify the local economy.
And provide higher-paying jobs. The average wage locally stands at $50,319 annually, significantly higher than the county's overall average pay of $34,556. The EDC's focus on manufacturing is readily apparent.
The recession took a heavy toll on Southwest Florida's manufacturing sector, but the North Port-Sarasota-Bradenton metro area is rebounding twice as fast as the national average. High-tech production is the primary driver here.
One of the biggest stars on the manufacturing stage is Sun Hydraulics, undertaking a $16 million expansion with a new 78,000-square-foot plant expected to open next summer and yield 361 new jobs over the next five years.
This follows improvements to existing facilities last year, and continues the company's phenomenal growth rate over the past four decades -- averaging 20 percent annually.
Sharon Hillstrom, EDC president and chief executive, outlined a curious challenge for the region's manufacturers -- the shortage of skilled employees.
In her Herald column on Monday, she pointed out that CareerEdge is a key workforce development resource that is leading a collaborative effort to solve this dilemma.
CareerEdge boosts current employees up the wage scale by paying for training and certification. This year, the nonprofit organization is focusing on manufacturing to help companies close the technical skills gap.
Other career options abound, and the EDC is trying to recruit students to pursue manufacturing. Training programs at Manatee Technical Institute and State College of Florida will provide the skills necessary for a good job in the industry.
With the economy still struggling and unemployment still too high, it's a wonder that more people are not taking advantage of these golden opportunities. With continued growth in this dynamic sector of the economy, the opportunities will only expand.