A worker assembles a part that will become a wing of a Piper Aircraft plane made in Vero Beach. Piper is the largest manufacturing employer on the Treasure Coast. PIPER AIRCRAFT
Revenue and employees to grow rapidly over next several years
BY BERNIE WOODALL
For 38 years, Kay Robinson has assembled parts that become wings, doors and center sections for Boeing jets, and she cannot think of doing anything else.
She knows she doesn’t want to retire anytime soon. Robinson says a woman her age doesn’t give out her age. Still, she acknowledges she’s past the time when most people retire. She found what it would be like to be retired when she had a bunch of earned hours to burn before the end of last year. So, she stayed at home in Fort Pierce. And got bored out of her gourd.
“I hated it,” Robinson says. “I need people around. I need something to do. I could never think of not building a floor beam.”
So, Robinson was happy to report for her first shift in 2019 at Triumph Aerospace Structures in Stuart, putting together parts that become floor beams of Boeing 767 jets. She is a team leader on floor beams in a factory that makes a variety of plane assemblies including flaps, several types of plane doors and center wing sections for jets made by Boeing, Gulfstream and Embraer, but mostly Boeing.
Robinson began at the factory next to Martin County Airport, known then as Witham Field, working for a company that was Grumman when she started, later becoming Northrop Grumman, then Vought and now Triumph Aerospace Structures, part of the Triumph Group, headquartered in Berwyn, Pennsylvania. It is no coincidence that she began at the plant 38 years ago, and it was 38 years ago that a Boeing 767 took its first flight. Stuart has supplied the 767 since its start. The factory itself began as a Grumman plant in the 1950s.
Robinson is one of more than 10,000 manufacturing workers on the Treasure Coast. In 2017, the number of manufacturing jobs here topped 10,000 for the first time, according to U.S. Census records dating to 2001. Collectively, those workers were paid about $600 million in wages in 2017, also a record.
“The manufacturing sector has been growing rapidly in the Treasure Coast over the last 10 years,” says William Fruth, president of economic analysis firm POLICOM.
POLICOM each year ranks U.S. metropolitan areas on economic strength and the long-term likelihood that they grow in economic size and quality. By POLICOM calculations, growth in the number of manufacturing jobs on the Treasure Coast in the last five years has outpaced 97 percent of the 383 U.S. metro areas studied. And in the past 10 years, the Treasure Coast ranks 30th of those metro areas for growth of manufacturing employment.
In the most recent five-year period, ending in 2017, St. Lucie manufacturing jobs increased 8.8 percent, Indian River grew 3.4 percent and Martin was up 2.6 percent, POLICOM shows. That compares to growth of 3.3 percent for Florida and 1.1 percent nationwide.
Manufacturing employment accounts for only 3.6 percent of the total workforce on the Treasure Coast, but the sector’s rapid growth encourages economic development leaders in all three counties.
“As South Florida continues to build out, we’re seeing a progressive move north” to the Treasure Coast from Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, says David Powers, an Indiantown realtor and president of the Business Development Board of Martin County.
“You can’t go any farther west down south in Palm Beach, Broward and Dade. So, as you continue north, there’s some good opportunities as far as sites go,” he adds.
In Martin, there are several shovel-ready areas for manufacturing, including Venture Park and Florida Commerce Park in Indiantown. At 1,221 acres, the largest area set aside that allows manufacturing development is the Tradition Center for Commerce owned by the City of Port St. Lucie. Several businesses have already located there, such as TAMCO Group, which manufactures electrical products sold in Dallas-based City Electric Supply branches nationwide. TAMCO broke ground last September on a nearly $40 million expansion. It was the first new investment at the commerce center after a loop road opened 100 acres of land for development near I-95. This will increase TAMCO employment by 50 to 260.
Local economies expand or contract in direct proportion to the amount of money imported to the area, explains Fruth. For the most part, money is imported by “primary industries” that sell their goods and services outside of the area. Because of the “extremely high” portion of the Treasure Coast’s population that is 65 and older, the retirement industry is the largest contributor, from Social Security, Medicare and private retirement income.
U.S. Census Bureau statistics collected by Fruth show that, nationally, 16 percent of people are 65 and older, compared with 20 percent in Florida; 24 percent in St. Lucie County; 30 percent in Martin County; and 32 percent in Indian River County.
The huge retirement industry is one of the reasons that each of the economic development organizations in the three counties is keen to expand manufacturing, which not only increases the amount of money coming into the area by sending out boats, airplanes and fabricated steel, but also diversifies the economy to give it a wider and deeper foundation.
Martin County led the Treasure Coast in the number of manufacturing jobs from 2007 through 2015. St. Lucie County took the lead over the other two counties in 2016, and widened its lead in 2017, U.S. Census figures show. In 2017, St. Lucie led the Treasure Coast with 4,008 manufacturing jobs, followed by Martin at 3,721 and Indian River at 2,282.
Manufacturers in Florida in 2017 accounted for 5.4 percent of the total output of the state and employed 367,400 people, or 4.3 percent of the non-farming workforce, the U.S. Census Bureau reported. Florida’s manufacturing output was $51.86 billion in 2017.
Average manufacturing wages, which include money paid into retirement funds as well as manager and blue-collar worker pay, in 2017 were $65,364 in Martin County; $62,810 in Indian River; and $52,906 in St. Lucie. Starting from the previous 10 years, Martin showed an average wage gain of 17 percent; Indian River, 25 percent; and St. Lucie, 14 percent. These figures are higher than what many people think of as an annual worker salary. Figures for production workers are in the low- to mid-$40,000s annually, local economic development officials say.
The manufacturing picture looks rosier than the overall economy, according to ratings by POLICOM. Martin, St. Lucie and Indian River counties comprise the Port St. Lucie Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA), which ranked 258th of the 383 MSAs in POLICOM’s latest national study.
NEED FOR WORKERS
In 2018, U.S. manufacturing added about 284,000 jobs, the best annual gain since 1997. The largest gains, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics showed, included areas in which the Treasure Coast excels — durable goods such as boats, aircraft, aircraft parts and metal fabrication.
Largely because of the lower cost of housing in St. Lucie County, it is the feeder for the other two counties when it comes to workers of all kinds, not just manufacturing. POLICOM figures that 34 percent of St. Lucie’s working population travels to work in another county, which makes those workers the largest importers of money to the county.
In Florida, the unemployment rate at the end of 2018 was 3.3 percent, down from 3.9 percent at the end of 2017. That is near the lowest rate, 3.1 percent in March 2006, in federal data that goes back to 1976. The jobless rate in the state has been steadily dropping since hitting a high of 11.3 percent in January 2010, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show. Nationally, the unemployment rate was 4.0 percent in January.
The low unemployment rate only makes it more difficult to find manufacturing workers for employers on the Treasure Coast and around the country, who are tasked with finding workers that have better skills than the lower-skilled factory jobs of a generation or two ago. Nationally, manufacturing companies expect a shortage of between 2 million and 2.5 million workers over the next decade, in part because of mass retirements of Baby Boomers.
Each of the three counties has its own programs for training manufacturing workers. St. Lucie’s is the most developed and involves the county’s school district. Indian River and Martin are working on programs that will involve public school districts. In Indian River, Piper Aircraft has a promising paid internship program in which interns attend Indian River State College tuition-free.
Indian River State College’s Corporate & Community Training Institute offers what it calls a Fast Track Program to a manufacturing job on the Treasure Coast. In an intensive five-week program designed around an initial set of manufacturing skills, participants have job interviews with area manufacturers that partner with IRSC. Among the partners are Triumph Aerospace Structures and Piper Aircraft.
Fruth says St. Lucie has the clearest path for new or expanding manufacturing businesses, mainly because of a looser regulatory regime than the other two counties.
Tammy Roncaglione, a community president at CenterState Bank in St. Lucie County, is often called the “den mother” for the growing membership of the Treasure Coast Manufacturing Association, which she was instrumental in founding three years ago. It was four years ago, Roncaglione says, that she and a few others decided an organization was needed to help new or expanding manufacturers navigate the regulatory and permitting maze in the area. It is also a resource for existing manufacturers, says Jerry Jacques, the organization’s president, who is general manager of Advanced Machine and Tool in Fort Pierce.
Most manufacturing jobs are filled by current residents of the area. Not all high school or middle school students are bound for college. Training programs can begin in or before high school as a way of showing young people as well as their parents that sustainable careers are available in manufacturing.
The same weather that has brought people to the Treasure Coast makes it easier to recruit new businesses, including manufacturers. Several area companies are on the Treasure Coast because their leaders vacationed here as children. Tim Girard moved Girard Equipment’s headquarters to Vero Beach from New Jersey, where the maker of liquid-carrying tanks was founded, says Helene Caseltine, director of development for the Indian River County Chamber of Commerce.
Treasure Coast Business visited several major manufacturers in the three counties and spoke with representatives from several others. Each company expects to grow in revenue and employees over the next several years.
TRIUMPH AEROSPACE STRUCTURES
At Triumph in Stuart, Kay Robinson is one of nearly 400 employees, one of whom is her daughter, Kim, and another her granddaughter, Bethany.
“We have three generations working at Triumph,” Robinson says. “That tells me it’s got to be a good place to work.”
Triumph makes a wide variety of parts for Boeing 747, Boeing 767 and Boeing 777. On some of the models, they make center wing boxes, where the wings attach to the fuselage, which must be able to withstand extremely high pressure at 35,000 feet from wind and weight, including the fuel stored in tanks inside the wings.
While it once produced for the commercial jets, the work at Triumph is now mainly for jets designed to be haulers of freight for FedEx Express.
Employment at the factory has gone up and down since it opened in the 1950s. Recently, those ebbs and flows have been tied to Boeing. The good news for Triumph in Stuart is that in January its parent company, Triumph Group, announced a new agreement with Boeing for “major structural assemblies for the 767.”
It looks for now as if work at the Stuart plant for Tier One supplier Triumph will expand, in part because of a relocation of work from a Dallas plant of Triumph, and because Boeing announced recently that it was kicking up production of its 767s to three per month from 2.5 per month, says Kurt Heitkamp, president of the Stuart site as well as plants in Texas and California.
Three may not sound like a lot, but when the product is the sophisticated center wing section and other assemblies that Triumph makes for the Boeing 767, three is a demanding number. Of the nearly 400 workers at the Stuart plant, more than 60 percent are those who touch the products. These workers are called mechanics, but Heitkamp says, “Our people really become skilled master mechanics” because of the demands of the job.
By far the largest manufacturing employer on the Treasure Coast is Piper Aircraft Inc., headquartered in Vero Beach. It is enjoying a resurgence based on the need for new pilot training aircraft. The aviation industry has a pilot shortage. Pilots in the United States are retiring, fewer trained fixed-wing pilots are coming from the U.S. military, and new pilots are needed worldwide, says Jackie Carlon, spokeswoman for Piper.
So, the business of making training airplanes, called trainers, is booming. But Piper’s business has boomed and busted multiple times since its 1937 founding in Pennsylvania. The salve this time is that the market is global, and the biggest growth is in its international business, which was a smaller portion of the company’s revenue when the last bust occurred.
Piper’s sales of planes to private owners are also up.
Piper in 1955 bought land at the Vero Beach Regional Airport and began production in 1961 of its iconic Cherokee.
In February the company had 1,000 employees, up from 950 a year earlier. By mid-2019, there will be 1,100 to 1,150 people working at its 700,000-square-foot factory at the airport. There is another 750,000 square feet (17.2 acres) of paved surface for airplane storage, much of which goes to general aviation fliers for parking, Carlon says.
Piper this year will employ more than double the workers on hand during the lull of production around the last recession. In 2009, there were 550 employees, when it produced only 14 trainer planes and 90 planes in all.
By 2017, Piper was back up to building 99 trainers in a year, and that jumped to 146 in 2018. The 230 to be built this year represents a production rise of almost 150 percent in two years.
In April, Piper announced that L3 Commercial Aviation had ordered 240 Piper aircraft, the largest civilian fleet order in its history, with 26 scheduled for delivery this year.
Last year, Piper’s revenue rose 37 percent to $262.6 million, which is three times its revenue in 2009, the year that a sovereign wealth fund for Brunei, the small southeastern Asia nation that takes up part of Borneo, quietly purchased Piper.
About 80,000 Piper airplanes are in use today. Piper has frequent guided tours of its factory.
Pursuit Boats opened a factory in 1983 near the St. Lucie County airport, now called Treasure Coast International Airport, and has been winning marine awards and consistently growing ever since. Along with its neighbor, Maverick Boats, it creates a center for marine manufacturing off St. Lucie Boulevard in northern St. Lucie County.
Just like at Piper and Triumph, there is no conveyer-belt type assembly line at Pursuit. Workers who specialize in different parts of construction in progress move boats along on dollies to work stations from molds for hulls to fiberglass to paint shop areas in Pursuit’s 250,000 square feet of manufacturing space.
A recent expansion of its offices and factory increased its workforce to 400 people, who make and sell luxury ocean-going, high-end fishing vessels of lengths from 23 to 38 feet with retail prices from $80,000 to $765,000.
David Glenn, marketing director of Pursuit, says the plant puts out 10 boats per week and about 500 annually. They are designed onsite and built using as little outside product as possible. Its major supplier is Yamaha, which makes Pursuit’s outboard motors.
“As much as we control in house with our processes, we do,” said Glenn. “That’s along the lines of all the wiring that goes into the boats, some of the marinization on the mechanical systems, a lot of the hose and plumbing and pieces. The finished assembly we control in-house, the idea being that if we can manage it here, the production process, we are going to deliver a better, higher-quality boat.”
Triton Submarines employs about 40, making it far from a large Treasure Coast manufacturing employer, but there probably is no cooler product than the deep-ocean submersibles they make.
The company and its factory in Sebastian in northern Indian River County delivered its first submarine in 2008. Triton has so far produced 16 submarines, most with acrylic see-through domes. A model that can carry three people, the Triton 1650/3 LP, can reach 500 meters (about 1,650 feet) and has a starting price of $3.3 million. Other models can go deeper, and cost more.
The market for these submarines is people wealthy enough to have yachts large enough to carry and launch them, as well as rich enough to hire a pilot, whom Triton can train, to operate the submersible.
Triton is the one commercial submarine maker that has made a vessel that can go 36,000 feet deep, which means it can withstand 16,000 pounds per square inch of pressure.
“It goes as deep as commercial aircraft fly,” says Jarl Stromer, compliance and quality manager at Triton Submarines.
Stromer says Triton will likely have explosive growth, based in part on expectations that the cruise lines will become buyers as they create voyages for adventure tourists who want a ride in a deep-water submersible.
A Triton submarine called the Limiting Factor, carrying underseas explorer Victor Vescovo, by May had completed four of five planned dives to the deepest parts of the world’s oceans, which is being recorded and produced for Discovery Channel. In late April, Vescovo, solo in the Triton sub, set a record by reaching a depth of 10,928 meters (35,853 feet) in the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean, the deepest part of any ocean on earth.
Once the Five Deeps Expedition https://fivedeeps.com/ is completed, the two-person Limiting Factor and its surface support ship and other equipment will be for sale, at between $41 million and $42 million, Stromer says.
“This is not science fiction. It’s not James Bond stuff anymore,” Stromer notes.
Maybe not, but there have been talks with the makers of the James Bond film series about producing a sub to be used in a future film, to have interior adornments by Aston Martin, the maker of sports cars driven by the world’s most famous fictional spy.
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