Southwest Florida is known for its pristine beaches and breathtakingly beautiful waterways and, of course, for the tourists who flock to them. Those beautiful beaches are also one of the reasons I landed here in 2001 when I decided to telecommute to my job in Miami as an international trade attorney for the law firm of Sandler, Travis & Rosenberg. I soon discovered that Sarasota had a vibrant cultural life, first-rate hospitals and a booming real estate climate. What I didn't notice were the 600 manufacturing operations in Sarasota and Manatee that employ more than 10,000 workers.

Right here in the bi-county area, manufacturers are producing the orange juice you sip at breakfast, brake parts on your automobile, the packaging you see on everyday products in your local supermarket, the windows in your home and office, as well as marine equipment and supplies for your boat and the medical equipment your doctor uses to treat illness and injury. Area businesses produce pool supplies, aviation equipment and electronics. They are developing self-heating packaged foods, creating the strings for violins and the mouthpieces for saxophones and clarinets, and producing luxury items like cultured diamonds.

These local manufacturers add diversity to our otherwise service-oriented economy and that, says Sarasota-Manatee Manufacturers Association (SAMA) executive director Peter Straw, is a very good thing.

"Manufacturing brings a balance to our economy. Companies that produce tangible products are creating wealth," Straw says. "When you create something locally and ship it out of the area and the state, you bring in revenue that has a ripple effect across the region. The average service-sector job pays $28,000 a year. The manufacturing average is $43,000."

And manufacturing salaries get spent locally, he adds. Each manufacturing job results in the creation of 2.5 retail and service-sector jobs. Manufacturing plants also create jobs in other industries-delivery drivers, accounting and payroll specialists, and insurance representatives, to name a few.

This lesser-known of Florida's industries has a tremendous impact on the region's economy, and it comes with a host of challenges. For example, manufacturing jobs are out there, but the challenge is finding people willing and skilled enough to fill the local employers' needs. This is the case across the board, whether the job opening is for simple assembly work or more sophisticated engineering jobs.

And even when local businesses find suitable staff, where they will live becomes an issue. "Many workers are traveling from outlying areas, such as Wauchula, or from areas in south Sarasota County like North Port, but this is becoming less feasible as traffic increases and gas prices rise," says Straw.

The manufacturing sector also faces an uphill battle when it comes to maintaining a viable presence in a state that has not been as historically supportive of industry as the more manufacturing-dependent states in the North.

"Manufacturing jobs in Florida have decreased in the past two years, from 400,000 to 380,000. If the state doesn't adopt a more proactive stance to encourage wealth-creating industry, this trend will not reverse itself," Straw says. He cites a recent tax-relief measure for manufacturers that was passed by the Florida House, only to be killed in committee in the Senate. "Without serious tax reform, manufacturing will continue to dwindle in Florida," he warns. "We need to keep our economy diversified. We all saw what happened to tourism after 9/11."

As someone who has spent a large part of her career traveling to Asia and Latin America to smooth the passage of goods across borders, I was astounded to learn that there is so much activity in my own back yard. That's why I'm excited to examine the contributions of the manufacturing sector in this new bi-monthly column, Manufacturing Matters. I'll be studying the contributions the manufacturing sector makes to our evolving economy, profiling innovative businesses and exploring strategies to increase efficiencies and lower costs. I'll report on the challenges this important sector of our business community faces and examine the solutions being proposed by forward-thinking business leaders.

As I sip my locally produced orange juice, look out of my locally manufactured window and unzip the locally manufactured packaging containing dog food for my rescued greyhound, I know that manufacturing matters.

INDUSTRY FAST FACTS

No. Of Florida manufacturers: 16,500

No. of Floriday Manufacturing workers: 390,000

No. of manufacturers in Sarasota-Managee: 10,000

National unionization rate for manufacturers: 13.8 percent

Florida's unionization rate for manufacturers: 2.9 percent

Average pay for a manufacturing employee in Florida: $40,926

Average pay for a service-sector job: $28,000

No. of jobs each manufacturing job creates: 2.5

No. of manufacturing jobs lost in Florida in the last two years: 20,000

Source: Enterprise Florida, Inc.

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