Jacksonville Labor Base Ready for Large Manufacturers, Officials Say

But in this soured economy of tightened credit and shrinking disposable incomes, even the nation’s most visible motorcycle brand has experienced stress. U.S. sales of its motorcycles were down 8.4 percent in the second quarter, the company reported. In April, talk began of the company moving its manufacturing operations out of Milwaukee to reduce costs and make it more competitive with foreign rivals, news sources in Milwaukee reported.

Presumably talk of moving is just the stuff of union negotiations. Even so, Jacksonville manufacturing and labor advocates say the city would be a viable place if its factory and 1,700 jobs were to relocate here. The reasons are the same as why the city could accommodate and provide labor for virtually any large manufacturer that comes here.

“At 11 percent unemployment, we’ve got labor force,” said Candace Moody, Worksource vice president of communications. “One thing that puts us on the short list for industrial is the large amount of exiting military personnel.”

Moody said Worksource’s database is the largest repository of jobs and job-seekers in the region, and that her agency could easily produce a number of qualified people with skills that either apply directly to what the manufacturer needs or can be transferred after training.

“We’ve got a really skilled workforce, everyone for the assembly line,” Moody said. “Lots of machine work is transferable. A lot of employers don’t have to have the same machine skills — it’s helpful, not necessary. We have a very motivated workforce. And manufacturing jobs have been hit really hard.”

And the fact that most existing Jacksonville labor is non-union could help the argument that an operation would be less expensive here, she said. Manufacturing jobs here range from $10 to $20 an hour, Moody said. The complexity of an industrial job often shows in how much it pays — a worker who can troubleshoot and maintain a line machine is likely to be paid better than one who performs repetitive tasks, she added. Moody said the Navy has produced many workers who have the higher-end machine skills a manufacturer would need.

“The Navy exits a lot of people with machine skills, safety skills, calibrating skills — a lot of them could be cross-trained,” she said. And that cross-training could be done through the city’s higher-education institutions, Moody noted.

But Jacksonville faces competitive barriers just because it’s in Florida, said Lad Daniels, president of the First Coast Manufacturers Association. Florida is surrounded by states that are more aggressive when it comes to wooing large employers.

“I’d say among Florida cities, we are the pick of the litter. The Southeast is pretty competitive, and Jacksonville is about as far south as they would want to look. But our incentives at the state and local levels are not what they get in other states,” Daniels said.

John Haley, senior vice president for business development for Cornerstone, the Jacksonville Regional Chamber of Commerce economic development arm, agreed. He noted that Florida’s incentives to bring industry here center on jobs directly created. Additionally, some of those incentives run out of time more quickly than corporations can make decisions, so they miss out on some of them. He said other states have sweetened the pot better with longer-term, more capital-oriented incentives that amount to investments in the economic vitality of their communities.

Value of capital investment

“Our incentive process needs to recognize the value of capital investment,” he said.

For example, Alabama weathered criticism in 1993 when it successfully proffered $300,000 in incentives per job to persuade Mercedes-Benz to  put its $300 million Mercedes-Benz U.S. International Inc. SUV factory in Tuscaloosa County, Haley noted.

“That built an infrastructure that was conducive to heavy manufacturing like this,” he said. And since then, Hyundai and Honda also have built plants in the state.

Florida is also known for unwieldy and lengthy permit approval processes, something other states have stripped down, Haley said. For that reason, Jacksonville needs to better emphasize its industrial developments that are pre-permitted, he said.

Jacksonville also has to combat the perception that Florida is a place for tourism, but not a place for industry.

To offset shortcomings in state-level incentive programs, Jacksonville needs to promote its power as a shipping and logistics point through its port, Daniels said.

“If I’m Harley, I’m going to look at my distribution channels. Can I get what I need to get from Jacksonville?” Daniels asked.

Still, he said, even if Jacksonville has everything going for it, Harley-Davidson would first have to leave its home of more than 100 years and upend its manufacturing tradition to come here.

“If I’m Milwaukee, and I know what’s going on in the economy, there’s no way I’m going to let them get out of there,” Daniels said. “There will be no replacing them.”

Kevin Turner

Florida Times-Union