Machining, the military and magnificent beaches work well together in Okaloosa County, Florida. Famous sugar-white sands are frosting on the cake when companies examine the business-friendly climate, educational opportunities and quality of life in Okaloosa County.
One company that thrives in this business-friendly environment, is Fort Walton Machining, Inc. (FWM) in Fort Walton Beach. A family-owned company, FWM was formed in 1987 as a custom manufacturing operation serving Eglin Air Force Base.
Tim McDonald, FWM Director of Operations was raised in the business and started working for the company when he was a teenager. He cites one of the main advantages of being a defense contractor in Okaloosa County is the proximity to Eglin Air Force Base. Within minutes, Eglin representatives can be inside the FWM facility and vice versa.
As a contract manufacturer, FWM doesn’t build the same thing every day. When customers like the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy, Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Blue Origin call, FWM takes their designs and creates what they need, to their specifications. For example, using a Computer Numeric Controlled Machine, FWM takes large chunks of aluminum and creates airframe components to include floor systems, airplane wings, etc.
The skills gap remains the longer-term challenge. McDonald says he is on a “crusade” to close that gap. There has been a lack of interest in manufacturing careers. “We need highly-skilled workers. Lives literally depend on what we build, says McDonald.”
For six years, FWM has run an apprenticeship program to attract talent. Apprentices with no experience are exposed to high tech tools. They love the work and are promoted. Out of 45 apprentices, 40 have stayed. Today, FWM has 150+ employees.
Local educational institutions are also working towards closing the skills gap. Okaloosa County Career & Technical Education (CTE) offers a Manufacturing Academy at all Okaloosa County high schools in grades 8 to 12, along with an Advanced Manufacturing course for Middle School students and an Applied Welding Technologies program certified by the American Welding Society. Northwest Florida State College (NWFSC) offers an Applied Welding Technologies program. Okaloosa Technical College also offers a welding program.
In March 2020, there were 388,600 manufacturing jobs in Florida and more than 20,000 manufacturing companies. 4.95% of Florida’s Gross State Product is from manufacturing. Florida ranks #2 among states for aviation and aerospace with over 2000 companies and 82,500 employees.
This article was prepared by the Economic Development Council of Okaloosa County, which is solely responsible for its content.
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