Bay County, Florida, faces a daunting challenge to create enough jobs in the coming years to maintain the current unemployment rate, according to an economist for a statewide chamber organization.
The challenge was revealed to CEOs from the area's largest employers Tuesday at a forum sponsored by the Florida Chamber of Commerce and held at the Innovation Center at Gulf Coast State College.
In response, the business leaders talked about the challenges they face in hiring qualified workers and what they believe needs to be done to generate new jobs.
"We only have three years to create more than 4,500 jobs for Bay County, and we want our local chamber and local economic developer partners using this data in their monthly community meetings to remind the local leaders about the gap we need to close," said Jerry Parrish, a chief economist for the Florida Chamber Foundation.
"We think Florida's Great Northwest has a great opportunity to make some long lasting economic diversification plays that will help grow jobs and the economy. A business-friendly climate is going to be the key to job creation, and that means not increasing uncertainty through poor policy choices that drives away employers."
Parrish's study shows the central Panhandle region will need to create 9,017 new jobs by 2020 and 24,797 new jobs by 2030 to keep up with population growth and have a 5 percent unemployment rate. Bay County's current unemployment rate stands at 4 percent.
At the forum Tuesday, Mark Wilson, the president and CEO of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, told CEOs that Bay County and six other counties in the central Panhandle region have fewer jobs today than they did 10 years ago.
"In fact," he said, "there are about 15,000 or 16,000 fewer jobs in the region today than there were 10 years ago."
Nationally, 36 percent of all counties in the country have more jobs today than 10 years ago -- as the Great Recession was getting underway -- and Florida is ahead of the national average, Wilson said.
"But the bottom line is when we have a (Panhandle) region (with) ... fewer jobs than we did 10 years ago, I think it ought to unite all of us together and say, 'Look, in a nonpartisan, pro-business sort of way, what needs to be done about this over the next 10 years?' " Wilson said.
Wilson said the economy has rebounded from the recession, but that can change quickly.
"I you expect the chamber of commerce to come in here and say that everything is great," Wilson said. "What I want you to know is I think everything is fragile. I don't think we have this incredible momentum going on that nothing can go wrong. But we also don't have this sort of backwards momentum going on."
Wilson criticized many of the moves of the Legislature this past session as being anti-business -- from increasing worker's compensation rates to cutting Enterprise Florida incentive funding to slashing workforce training.
"They are cutting college funding by $31 million, which is crazy," he said. "These are the kind of things that send signals to job creators, and these are the kinds of things we need to pay close attention to."
Dan Rowe, the executive director of the Bay County Tourist Development Council, praised the Florida Chamber Foundation for its support of Visit Florida, which some legislators tried to eliminate or slash funding drastically this session. He said the foundation has been very helpful in creating credibility for "tourism as an economic development engine, as an economic development strategy."
Wilson said it is difficult to say what the new Legislature will do, particularly with many new faces due to term limits. He said Gov. Rick Scott, who soon will be term limited out, was a staunch supporter of the chamber's job creation initiatives and the chamber's agenda.
"I think everybody knows how close we are to Gov. Scott," Wilson said. "Since he's been governor, we've passed 120 to 130 bills, and he signed every one of them. I'm telling you right now this is going to be one heck of an election year and I don't know what kind of a legislative session it's going to be."
The audience at Tuesday's forum included representatives from major local employers like Berg Steel, Eastern Shipbuilding, AT&T, the St. Joe Co. and Lamar Advertising.
Bay County Chamber President Carol Roberts spoke about a recent survey of 218 chamber members asking them about their concerns. She said the No. 1 response was the challenge of finding quality employees. Other concerns include the rising cost of health care and regulatory and tax burdens.
Many of the employers in the room echoed that, saying finding quality employees continues to be a challenge.
Randy Hanna, dean of Florida State University Panama City, said the college continues to be dedicated to training a quality workforce.
"I would say at all levels we continue to focus on the development of talent and provide support from the K-12 level, technical schools or colleges, and universities in that area," he said.
Bill Cramer, owner of Bill Cramer Chevrolet, said the Legislature's decision to cut $30 million from state colleges "to me was a tragedy."
"I'm very interested in supporting the state colleges," he said. "State colleges get very little love out of Tallahassee. Not to disparage the state university system, but our community colleges cost half as much to teach students and students go out and good jobs."
One company preparing to hire a trained county workforce is Eastern Shipbuilding Group, which in September landed a $10.5 billion contract -- the largest in U.S. Coast Guard history -- to build the first series of nine offshore patrol cutters, topping the biggest and best boatyards in the country in the process. William Harrison, an attorney representing Eastern Shipbuilding, said the company will be hiring as many as 1,000 people over a 20-year period as part of the new contract, with 4,000 to 5,000 indirect jobs.
He said he hopes the Legislature is more amenable to helping fund the shipyard's infrastructure needs tied to the new contract.
"It really puts us a competitive disadvantage where we are dealing with other shipyards, none of which are in the state of Florida, which are heavily subsidized, heavily supported, get incredible infrastructure assistance from their states," Harrison said.
New and expanding companies will create many new jobs in the coming years, but nowhere near enough jobs to meet the numbers outlined by Parrish. For example, GKN Aerospace, which is opening at Northwest Florida International Airport, will be creating at least 170 new full-time equivalent jobs at an annual wage of $63,156 by the end of 2020.
Nationally, the climate is right for job expansion, Congressman Neal Dunn said. He said the current Congress and President Donald Trump are "pro business from top to bottom."
"Now that's a sea change," he said, adding Congress should "take advantage of this time and get rid of some of these regulations in a more permanent fashion."
"What we need are your ideas on every level," Dunn said. "What regulations are causing you problems? And if we can make a case to remove those regulations, we'll do it."
Becca Hardin, the president of the Bay Economic Development Alliance, said at the state level, the alliance would like to see the Legislature repeal the sales tax Florida charges on business leases.
"As we compete for companies to locate in Bay County, that continues to be an issue for us," she said.
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