Aviation Industry Growing in Jacksonville, Despite Lack of Trained Workers


Kaman Aerospace in Jacksonville started manufacturing at a single building in Imeson Industrial Park on the Northside. Then Kaman expanded to a similar-sized building across the street.

Now, Kaman is poised to add a third building to its Jacksonville operations as it ramps up production. Kaman Aerospace employs about 450 in Jacksonville, and plans to add another 200 workers by the end of 2016, provided the company gains an incentives package from the city and state.

 

Kaman's building-by-building expansion typifies how Jacksonville's aviation industry has grown the past decade. The city hasn't landed any of the mega-projects that deliver 1,000 or more jobs. But Jacksonville has attracted some companies that have been able to grow into employers with hundreds of jobs.

 

Flightstar, which does heavy maintenance repairs at Cecil Airport in Cecil Commerce Center on the Westside, is an 11-year-old company with 565 employees. The company expects to top 600 workers as it attracts more business because it has added hangar space for work on commercial airplanes, said Tucker Morrison, chief operating officer for the company.

 

Boeing, which started an operation at Cecil Airport 11 years ago, now employs about 240 people at the airport, 

working on military contracts such as converting F-16 fighters into jets that can fly either manned or unmanned.

 

As their operations expand, aviation executives say it is becoming harder to find qualified workers. But so far, they've been able to fill positions by tapping the reservoir of residents with military experience in aviation repair or setting up training programs for new hires.

 

Kaman Aerospace looked at other states and also Mexico as sites for the 200-job expansion. The City Council will be voting in the coming weeks on a $3.2 million incentive package. The city's share would be $651,000 and the state would provide the rest.

 

 

"The business climate and the labor climate is really what kept us in the area and why we want to build on what we have," said Bob Kanaskie, division president for Kaman in Jacksonville.

 

He said the labor market has been tightening as the Southeast gains large-scale aviation plants such as Boeing in Charleston, S.C. and Gulfstream Aerospace in Savannah, Ga.

 

Gains made by the Southeast in the aviation sector could end up attracting more qualified workers to the entire area "which would be good for everybody, or we'll all be fishing from the same pond," he said.

 

Morrison also said one of the "biggest challenges is finding qualified employees across all skill levels." He said the Boeing plant in South Carolina created competition for workers. Flightstar has sought to attract and keep workers by "promoting from within" so people feel they can advance their careers, he said.

 

Jacksonville has tried to recruit the aviation manufacturers that will bring 1,000 or more jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in investment.

 

But for those mega projects, states across the Southeast are in the hunt and Florida has not been able to match the huge incentives packages offered by other states, said John Haley, senior vice president of business development for Cornerstone, the Northeast Florida economic development arm of the Jacksonville Regional Chamber of Commerce.

 

He said military contracts have provided stability to the aviation sector during the recession. He said in the coming years, overall defense spending will be subject to budget cuts so chamber officials will be watching where those cuts fall on specific military contracts.

 

Cornerstone has been talking with other aviation companies that have "promising" potential for job growth in Northeast Florida, Haley said.

 

At Kaman's operation in Jacksonville, the plant provides aviation components for both military and commercial aircraft.

 

Kanaskie said the company will seek to bolster its commercial side as the economy picks up.

 

David Bauerlein

Florida Times-Union