Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

First Coast Lacks High-Tech Jobs Manufacturers Are Seeking Skilled Workers

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

First Coast Lacks High-Tech Jobs Manufacturers Are Seeking Skilled Workers

Article excerpt

At a factory in St. Augustine, Shelly Ward stands by a machine

tool that's spinning a 60-pound metal doughnut that will become a

gear.

Beneath the machine's carbide cutting head lay ribbons of

high-grade steel that curl like leftover confetti from a parade.

She earns more than $30,000 a year operating and programming

the complicated machines that create the gear.

In Florida, such jobs are few and far between.

Nine years ago, Riley Precision Gear relocated its headquarters

from near Buffalo, N.Y., to Northeast Florida.

The company moved to escape New York state's higher tax burden,

regulations, real estate prices and utility expenses, said

company president Tom Lowry.

But when it comes to manufacturing, Florida's no paradise.

Lowry has trouble finding workers with the skill to operate the

computer-controlled machine tools that turn raw steel into the

company's merchandise.

"We've been scrambling big time," Lowry said.

The gear factory's problems with recruiting workers points to

an underlying weakness of North Florida's economy -- the

relative lack of manufacturing jobs.

While 15.5 percent of the U.S. work force toils producing such

items as apparel, automobiles and other goods, the figure on the

First Coast is only 7.4 percent.

This lack of manufacturing translates into an absence of

skilled workers for employers such as Riley Gear.

And the problem feeds itself. A lack of skilled workers hinders

efforts to recruit more manufacturers to the area, Lowry said.

In St. Augustine, Lowry pays his workers an hourly wage of

between $11 and $13. That's less on average than he pays workers

at an older plant the company operates in North Tonawanda, near

Buffalo, he said.

Taking into account higher costs of living around Buffalo and

worker experience, employees at both plants are paid about the

same, Lowry said. …

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