CHIPLEY — The pool of qualified skilled employees needed to fill key manufacturing positions is shrinking, and that is a problem a regional manufacturing council hopes to solve.

CHIPLEY — The pool of qualified skilled employees needed to fill key manufacturing positions is shrinking, and that is a problem a regional manufacturing council hopes to solve.

The Washington County Chamber of Commerce members heard a presentation from members of the Northwest Florida Manufacturers Council during Thursday’s meeting at Northwest Florida Community Hospital.

“It is predicted that more than 3,400 people will be retiring from regional manufacturing positions in the near future,” said Jennifer Grove, workforce development coordinator for Gulf Power. “After a survey of regional schools and technical centers, it was determined that there are about 860 workers being prepared to fill those 3,400 jobs. Clearly we have got some work to do there.”

Grove, of Panama City, is working with the manufacturer’s council on loan from Gulf Power to help with workforce development, spoke on the importance of manufacturing jobs to the regional economy, and the potential for good careers for students with industrial certifications.

“We all get to live in a place where millions of people wish they could live, and we want to provide jobs so our children and grandchildren can stay close to home, if not in the same city, then at least in the region,” Grove said. “Close enough they can visit but not so close you have to do all their laundry,” she added, joking.

While there is not a lack of applicants for jobs at Gulf Power, there is often a lack of qualified applicants applying for the jobs — which is a problem for manufacturers across the country as well as across the region.

“In my job, I focus on workforce development for the energy industry, and it is a struggle to find employees who have not only the job skills, but the soft skills as well, such as the habit of showing up for work every day on time,” Grove said.

The manufacturers council is looking at the same challenges as they apply to industrial jobs across the 12-county region. The region, which stretches from Escambia to Franklin counties, is expected to receive $2.6 billion in total 2013 Gross Domestic Product from manufacturing.

Manufacturing provides 14,518 jobs within the regional economy, and generates $985 million in total earnings. The leisure and hospitality industry, on the other hand, employs 63,053 workers in the region and generates $1.3 billion in earnings.

“We looked at the manufacturing jobs in Northwest Florida, and found there are 14,000 jobs with an average annual salary of $67,872,” Grove said. “On the other hand, the tourism industry is paying annual salaries of $20,600.”

For every job in manufacturing, an additional 1.7 jobs are generated in the region.

Getting parents and legislators on board with the idea that manufacturing careers are lucrative has been a challenge, but the state of Florida is ahead of the game, Grove said.

“Adam Putnam, commissioner of agriculture, said recently he would rather be involved in the government of Florida rather than any other state in the country,” Grove said. “While our legislators are debating how much we should be involved in getting our high school and middle school students on track to get industrial certifications, other states are still debating whether or not it should even be an issue.”

Regional manufacturers councils are also found across the country and throughout Florida, but until the forming of the Northwest Florida Manufacturers Council, there was not one in this region, Grove said.

As an example of one benefit of having a manufacturers council, local businesses are now eligible for grants to reimburse them for training expenses up to $3,500 for each new job added, Grove said. “Normally, you have to add 10 jobs to be eligible for this reimbursement, but through the council, you can now be eligible for even one job due to this grant,” she said.

Nationally, 70 percent of Americans think manufacturing is the most important industry as far as impact to the national economy, yet only 30 percent of those polled would want their children to work in manufacturing.

“The days when you graduated high school, went to college, then lived happily ever after are over,” Grove said. “If you look at the state unemployment statistics, and see the number of baccalaureate degree holders who are unemployed, you realize just having a college degree isn’t enough any more.”

Grove said parents need to be talking to children about what type of career they want to have and begin learning skills as early as middle school.

“You have to know what you want to do, and then you have to develop those skills needed for that career to be successful,” Grove said.

“This is why manufacturing is so important to our rural counties,” said Terry Ellis, who manages WestPoint Home in Chipley and also serves on the board of directors for the manufacturers council. “So many of our young people are having to go find work somewhere else, it’s important we create an atmosphere where they can stay close to home.”