Officials look to boost manufacturing jobs

PALM BAY — George Moore strolled through the expansive production room at MC Assembly late last month.

The 55-year-old Moore, who joined the contract manufacturer in 2005 and became its chief executive officer two years later, didn’t necessarily look like a trendsetter in his khaki slacks and blue dress shirt. But many in Brevard County’s economic development community hope he is one.

Or at least a weather vane.

In the past 18 months, Moore has helped increase business for MC Assembly, which in turn has allowed him to hire 100 more workers, boosting the work force to about 800. And he hopes the company’s recently obtained AS 9100 certification will generate more work and the need for even more workers.

“We’re forecasting significant growth in 2012,” Moore said of his operation, which mostly makes electronic components for a variety of larger customers.

Growth in manufacturing employment has been sporadic and not enough to stem an overall decline. Over the past 20-plus years, in fact, the number of manufacturing jobs has fallen from more than 30,000 to 20,400, according to the Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation. That’s the lowest it’s been since 1991.

But the benefits jobs in some areas of manufacturing bring to a community make creating them a high priority.

“Typically, high-tech manufacturing jobs offer above-average wages, which generally results in more dollars flowing into the economy,” said Lynda Weatherman, president and chief executive officer of the Economic Development Commission of Florida’s Space Coast. “As discretionary income and the tax base grows, area businesses benefit from increased consumer spending and more dollars are available for essential services, leading to an overall improved quality of life for the community.”
The time may be right for such a push.

William Howard, president of Stability Technology Inc., an Atlanta-based manufacturing consulting firm, said lower-valued U.S. dollar makes doing business in the United States cheaper than it once was. And higher energy costs make shipping more expensive, so companies are looking more and more at getting their manufacturing done closer to home.

Building on strength
One of the top goals of the EDC and Space Florida, the state agency charged with strengthening the space industry in the Sunshine State, is to boost aerospace and aviation employment in Brevard, including in the manufacturing sector.

Officials from both agencies attend trade shows, meet with lawmakers on incentive packages and generally put out the word to companies that even though the space shuttle program has ended, Brevard remains a viable player in this arena.

That focus already has helped lead to some manufacturing jobs, among them from Embraer Holding Inc. The U.S. subsidiary of the Brazilian jet manufacturer is hiring at least 200 workers for its new jet-assembly facility and customer service center at Melbourne International Airport.

A loftier effort will be to lure commercial space related companies to Brevard and convince them that building rockets near the launch pads makes good economic sense. Higher operating costs and more stringent business regulations in other states with space-related manufacturing — California, for example — could make Florida all the more appealing, said Space Florida President Frank DiBello.

While getting a company to move a large manufacturing operation from one state to another can become a political issue as much as anything, DiBello is making the case that any new space-related production lines — including small satellite manufacturing — could be cheaper in Florida, near the point of launch.

“We not only have a much friendlier business environment, but also an abundant work force and the willingness to provide additional training assistance,” he said.

Big loss
It’s not as if Brevard was never abuzz with manufacturing.

But the industry is often remembered for what was lost than what remains, or could be. One of the highest-profile manufacturing losses came out of North Brevard.

McDonnell Douglas Corp. had a plant in Titusville where Tomahawk cruise missiles were made for the Navy. At its peak in the late 1980s the plant employed 2,300 people. Many in the area believed similar space and defense-related manufacturing work would follow.

That never happened.

Eventually, the plant lost its Navy contract, and it closed in 1995.
“The Tomahawk closing was big loss,” said Walt Johnson, Titusville’s vice mayor and the former head of the Titusville-based Space Coast Economic Development Commission. “Fortunately, we were able to get Knight’s in there.”

“Knight’s” is Knight’s Armament Co., the weapons and equipment manufacturer that purchased the plan seven years after its closing. It now employs 275.

Hopeful at MC
MC Assembly’s recent AS 9100 certification could help it add to its workforce. That certification, which comes under the auspices of the International Aerospace Quality Group, is the internationally recognized quality system standard specific to the aerospace and defense industries.

Moore said the designation should help create more jobs locally because it broadens the number of companies it can work with.

“By having this certification it opens up more opportunities to compete in that market and it increases more of an opportunity of winning more of that aerospace and defense business,” Moore said. “Those are jobs that will most likely stay in our Florida facility.”
MC Assembly, which has a total of about 1,500 workers, has two other operations. Both — one in the Boston area and another in Zacatecas, Mexico — focus on manufacturing for clean technologies and the medical industry, while the Palm Bay operation is more industrial and defense related.

It managed through the housing crisis and the subsequent economic downturn in better shape than most because its customers were not closely tied to construction industry. Instead Moore focused on going after business in fields he saw were growing, including aviation, communications, clean energy and communications.

“Since January 2010, we’ve had about a 36 percent increase in employment throughout the company,” Moore said. “I looked at 2009 as the height of the recession. It was down year for everybody. But since 2010 we have had significant growth.”