Manufacturing jobs reappear in Tampa Bay region

The increasing number of jobs tell the story: Florida and the Tampa Bay area are experiencing a resurgence in manufacturing jobs.

The resurgence, which appears to be mostly concentrated in smaller, high-tech or “niche” companies, is occurring after years of gradual but steady decline in manufacturing, made worse by a crash during the latest recession.

Now with more than 333,000 manufacturing jobs across Florida, more than 61,000 just in the Tampa Bay region and growing companies hiring again, you can actually see the industry's comeback on the high-tech factory floors of local manufacturers.

You can see the comeback at Southern Manufacturing Technologies situated in a small industrial park just off the Veterans Expressway in northwest Hillsborough County. There you’ll see lathes operated by computers and workers using microscopes in fabricating ultra-precise valves, actuators and other parts for jet and rocket engines.

You can also see it at the headquarters of Heat Pipe Technology off Orient Road, a company that was founded in 1983 with a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to develop an innovation that makes air conditioning systems more efficient and keeps satellites safe from the broiling heat and deep cold of space.

And it’s also in the headquarters of Creative Sign Designs off Racetrack Road, where workers design and fabricate one-of-a-kind exterior and interior signs, including the unique “sign” on the new Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg – actually the artist’s signature recessed into a section of the building’s exterior concrete wall.

Creative Sign Designs

Jamie Harden, president and CEO of Creative Sign Designs and also active in the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, says several changes in business conditions are contributing to the trend.

First, fewer raw materials are coming from overseas, because of increased costs for producers in China and elsewhere, and increased shipping costs. His own company, he says, is now more likely to buy aluminum products from which many of its signs are made domestically rather than from overseas.

Second, “Construction activity is pulling us out of the recession we were in,” he says.

And third, efforts by schools systems and colleges to train more workers for skilled labor are starting to have an effect, providing a better workforce for those businesses where most of the change is occurring, high-tech or high-skilled “niche” manufacturers.

“This has never been a manufacturing hub, and we’re starting to change that,” he says.

His own company has bumped up from about 80 workers to 146 in the last three years.

MicroLumen and Xcelience

One of the “niche” manufacturing areas experiencing growth is in health care and pharmaceutical-related work.

Oldsmar-based MicroLumen, which makes medical and surgical tubing, moved to a new building for more space in late 2012, but already needs more space again, says Krissi Heard, head of technical sales and marketing.

The company has added 25 employees since the move, and wants to bring in-house some work it’s now subcontracting.
Its products include the stents that are inserted into arteries to keep them open, often replacing open-heart surgery. Most of the new employees have been beginning-level manufacturing workers.

Tampa-based Xcelience, which provides various kinds of analysis, testing, clinical packaging and manufacturing services to the pharmaceutical industry, announced in March it’s adding a new facility and doubling its work force to 200.

Availability of those highly skilled workers, however, remains an obstacle for further growth for some companies.

Training, hiring more skilled workers

Roy Sweatman, president of Southern Manufacturing Technologies, says his company has recovered from a 15 percent downturn in sales during the recession, and would be adding more employees if they could find them.

“I’ve got a lot of opportunities I can’t pursue” because of the lack of skilled workers, he says.

Sweatman’s production requires highly skilled machinists, some of whom program the computers that operate the metal cutting machines. The pay ranges from $10 an hour for beginners up to $28 an hour for skilled veterans; a third make more than $50,000 a year.

Part of the problem is public misperception about manufacturing – “That it’s all done in China, or that it’s all dark and dingy,” he says. “We’re air-conditioned and clean with bright lights.”

To try to change that perception, he arranges tours of his plant, often for teachers and students at local high schools and community colleges, or for veterans’ groups.

Armwood High School, he says, is starting starting a program in machining, and the Hillsborough County Public Schools system is starting a manufacturing academy. See background in this 83 Degrees story from May 2015. 

“There are a lot of things that will make a difference in the future but are not helping immediately,” he says.

Growing confidence in the business climate

Ken Jurgensmyer of Heat Pipe Technology also manages a local steel truss plant for the company’s corporate parent, MiTek USA Inc. Both businesses depend at least partly on the construction industry, and both “have really been going crazy,” he says.

He’s handled the increase so far mainly with more temporary workers and increased overtime, but says it may be time for a change that will be welcome in the local job market.

“Now that we’re seeing it’s more permanent and the climate is improving, we’re to the point where we can start bringing on people who have been working on temporary basis and decreasing overtime,” he says.

About those numbers

Manufacturing employment has fluctuated in recent years at the whims of a volatile national economy and the collapse of the housing industry, one of the major bases of the state’s economy.

According to figures from the state Department of Economic Opportunity, the Tampa Bay area – or the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater Metropolitan Statistical Area – boasted more than 90,000 manufacturing jobs as recently as 2000.

A steady decline brought the numbers down as low as 75,000 in 2003-04, followed by what appeared to be small recovery, reaching a pre-recession peak of 79,300 in June, 2006.

But in 2008-09, the bottom fell out, and the numbers dropped to 57,700 in January, 2010 – a loss of 21,600 jobs, or 27.7 percent, since the pre-recession peak.

Since 2010, however, manufacturing jobs have inched back up both statewide and in the Tampa area, where the number reached about 61,000 in late 2014 and early 2015.

That roughly tracks statewide figures. Florida’s numbers declined from nearly 450,000 in early 2001 to less than 310,000 in 2010, and have now inched back up to more than 333,000.
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Read more articles by William March.