In approving economic incentives for trailer manufacturing firm, county commissioners also voice desire to foster trade career training programs

Rhino Trailers to receive up to $138,000 over eight years for jobs with annual wage of $44,918

This is an example of a Rhino Trailers product, as shown on the company’s Sarasota division Facebook page. Image courtesy of Rhino Trailers

Emphasizing the importance of careers that pay well in Sarasota County, the county commissioners unanimously have approved a $138,000 Economic Development Incentive Fund grant to assist an Indiana firm that has leased 35,000 square feet of space for a manufacturing facility in north Sarasota.

The average annual wage of the new jobs with Rhino Trailers of Florida LLC will be $44,918, according to a staff memo provided to the board in advance of its Feb. 24 meeting. That is equal to 100% of the average annual wage of the Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) in which the federal government has placed Sarasota, the memo added.

(Rhino Trailers is operating out of a building located at 4050 Middle Ave., according to the Sarasota division’s Facebook page.

The county incentive grant funds, which would represent $3,000 per job, would be disbursed over an eight-year period, based on the company’s ability to create the positions.

Representatives of the company already are working with area technical colleges to secure workers, Dave Bullock, president and CEO of the Economic Development Corp. of Sarasota County, told the commissioners on Feb. 24. “They’ll need welders more than just about anything else …”

Two or three years ago, Chair Alan Maio responded, he learned during a Sarasota Manatee Manufacturers Association meeting that after a year or so of employment, machinists could make annual wages of $58,000. He indicated his belief that welders’ pay would be comparable to that. “These type of trades — [workers] will have a job forever.”

Thus, Maio added, the Rhino operation is a “very, very big deal.”

This graphic provides more details about the economic impact Rhino Trailers of Florida LLC is expected to have on Sarasota County’s economy. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Rob Lewis, the county’s governmental relations director, explained that Rhino Trailers of Florida LLC “offers residential and commercial trailers.”

In providing more details to the commissioners, Bullock of the Economic Development Corp. of Sarasota County (EDC) pointed out, “The interesting thing to me is that you cannot drive around Sarasota County without seeing these cargo trailers. They haul lawn equipment and boats and construction [materials]. They’re all over the place, and there are either very few or no actual manufacturers of this type of trailer in the state.”

This slide shows details related to Rhino Trailers’ request for the economic incentive grant. Image courtesy Sarasota County EDC

The primary builders of such trailers for the Florida market are located in Texas and Georgia, Bullock noted. “So this company saw an opening.”

Bullock also pointed out of Rhino representatives, “They did not ask for confidentiality.” He said he believes the reason for that decision is that Rhino is new to the Florida market, and company leaders want to get the name in front of potential customers. “They are projecting strong growth” after the Sarasota facility becomes operational, he said.

The company plans to hire 82 workers, he continued. “Those are brand new jobs.”

The average wage for management-level positions will be $52,600, Bullock said, while the average for other annual wages will be $41,600, based on documentation Rhino provided the EDC.

This slide shows how the incentive grant funds would be disbursed over the next several years. Image courtesy Sarasota County EDC

The EDC put Rhino in contact with the Sarasota Manatee Manufacturers Association (SAMA), as well as CareerEdge and CareerSource, to assist the company in filling positions, Bullock pointed out.

On its website, CareerEdge explains that it “partners directly with employers in fast-growing sectors in the regional economy, to help them fill skills gaps and meet their employment needs, while at the same time assisting individuals in entering the workforce and moving up career ladders. CareerEdge is a cutting-edge initiative and is transforming the way stakeholders and policy makers in the region and around the state look at career training.”

On its Facebook page, CareerSource Suncoast, which is a nonprofit, says it “is the leading provider of workforce services” in Sarasota and Manatee counties.

Referencing the impacts the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the economy in general, Bullock also told the commissioners, “As of the end of December, the Sarasota County unemployment rate was just under 5%, like 4.7%, which is way better than it was [earlier in 2020].” Moreover, he said, employers are having a bit more difficulty finding skilled labor to fill the jobs that are available.

“We were in a huge labor shortage a year-and-a-half ago,” Bullock continued, because “there were jobs everywhere and people couldn’t find workers.”

This is another one of Rhino Trailers’ products, which has LED lighting. Image from the company’s Sarasota division Facebook page

Since Oct. 1, 2020, Bullock pointed out, 362 new jobs have been created in the county, with 159 of those pegged to economic incentives the commissioners have approved. The total capital investment linked to those jobs is $6,237,653, Bullock added. “That’s really the return you’re looking for …”

Other avenues for assistance?

Commissioner Michael Moran told his colleagues that he had talked at length with Bullock and Destin Wells, vice president of the EDC for business development services, about how the commission could be of greater help to county employers.

Referring to the Rhino proposal, Moran added, “This is an opportunity for us to attract and retain young adults here as welders.”

Perhaps the board members could consider grants or scholarships to facilitate programs that provide skills training, Moran said, or the county “could help our tech schools here with funding.”

Commissioner Nancy Detert pointed out that the board already is providing financial support to CareerEdge and CareerSource.  Further, she noted, the Sarasota County School District funds its two technical colleges — in North Port and Sarasota.

However, noting that Bullock will be back before the commission later with an updated strategic plan for the EDC, she said perhaps that would be a better time to discuss other ways the county can assist manufacturers.

In response to a question from Moran, Bullock pointed out that the SAMA “has kind of been a quiet organization for a little while. They have a lot of great members.” In fact, Bullock continued, the SAMA just made its executive director’s position a full-time one. “They are mobilizing, I might say … to help the manufacturing companies.”

Dave Bullock is president and CEO of the EDC of Sarasota County. Image courtesy of the town

The EDC has been fielding a lot of inquiries from new manufacturing firms and those looking to expand, he added. “[That is] a very active sector right now,” Bullock said, indicating that it has survived the pandemic better than any other sector of the economy.

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” Bullock added, “that there’s a better focus now on this need [for skilled manufacturing labor].”

Along with learning the necessary skills for manufacturing work, he also noted, prospective employees need to understand that they have to show up on time at their jobs and drug-free, and they must be capable of working with others as part of a team. “This just boggles my mind, maybe because I’m an old guy,” he acknowledged of problems that he has heard about in regard to employees not adhering to basic workplace standards.

Commissioner Ron Cutsinger noted that one of his clients who has a manufacturing business “can’t find qualified employees.” Cutsinger concurred with Moran about the need to discuss how the commission could facilitate workforce training.

“A vocational career is a great career,” Cutsinger pointed out.

As for Rhino: Cutsinger added, “I need one of those trailers. … I just think the opportunities are great for the amount of money we’re putting into it.”

Following the discussion, Moran made the motion to approve the request for the incentives, and Cutsinger seconded it.

Lewis, the governmental relations director, said that a formal agreement for the Rhino incentives would be presented to the board members at an upcoming meeting.

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