Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Aviation is among the rising careers in Polk County’s economy

LAKELAND — The future of employment in Polk County is up in the air.

And that does mean in the air.

“A piece (of Polk employment) that I would say is less well known is aviation and aerospace,” said Sean Malott, president of the Central Florida Development Council, the county’s business recruitment agency. “It’s been part of our economy because of Sun ’n Fun, but it’s really growing.”

Polk is the home to many aviation services companies, such as Draken International at Lakeland Linder Regional Airport, and to companies that rely on aviation in the normal course of business, such as Saddle Creek Corp., a Lakeland warehouse and distribution company.

Other national companies have local distribution hubs that rely on aviation to move products, notably the Amazon fulfillment center in Lakeland.

A July 24 report from aircraft manufacturer Boeing forecast a global need for 637,000 new pilots and 648,000 new airplane technicians during the next 20 years.

That market demand created Polk State College’s Aerospace Program, which offers two- and four-year degrees for pilots and mechanics, said Eric Crump, the program’s director.

“In North America alone, that figure (demand for pilots) will be 117,000,” he said. “Boeing has done the study every year since 2012, and every year that number goes up.”

The study projected the demand for aircraft mechanics in North America through 2036 at 118,000.

“Part of the reason the numbers from Boeing are going up is the growing demand for air travel,” Crump said. “We’ve also got a lot of growth in the commercial air industry.”

Driving the latter is the growth of e-commerce, he added.

Virtually every overnight package delivered from a retailer to a residence travels by air, Crump said, and approximately 80 percent of other shipments do, too.

According to a May report on retailing from the Wall Street bank Credit Suisse, e-commerce accounts 17 percent of U.S. retail sales and will grow to 35 percent in five years.

Expanding programs

The growth in the travel and retail markets, combined with the fact that the U.S. military cannot provide enough trained pilots and mechanics, has left the job of providing them to the public and private educational institutions.

The Polk State program began with nine students when it opened in January 2013, Crump said. Today, it has 240 students in three associate in science degrees in professional pilot science, aerospace administration and aviation maintenance administration, and a bachelor of science degree in aerospace sciences geared to pilots or mechanics.

Six years earlier, the Polk County School District opened the Central Florida Aerospace Academy at the Lakeland Linder Airport, said Keith Smith, supervisor of the academy that is part of Kathleen High School.

It started with 55 freshmen and sophomores studying aerospace for pilots, avionics, engineering and aircraft mechanics as well as the standard high school subjects, Smith said. It now has 370 students and will probably reach its capacity of 500 students within the next three years.

The academy is one of only a handful of high schools in the nation that offers Federal Aviation Administration certification for mechanics, which allows students to get a job upon graduation, he said.

Like Polk State, the School District also started the academy in response to market demand, said Smith, who added he was also familiar with the numbers from Boeing’s annual survey.

So are his students, many of whom come from families with members in the aviation industry.

“They’ve been exposed to it and they like what they see,” he said. “I think most of them are looking at something they would be good at and make some money.”

New jobs in logistics

Warehousing and distribution has been a staple of the Polk economy for the past several decades because of its prime location in the center of Florida and between two of its largest metro areas, Tampa and Orlando.

The county will continue as a focus for new business and jobs, Malott said.

“Polk is recognized as one of the best locations for distribution not only because of its location but because of Polk’s reputation as business friendly,” he said.

Like the aviation industry, e-commerce also is transforming warehousing and distribution, also known as “logistics,” said Donna Slyster, chief information officer at Saddle Creek.

The company and the entire industry is transitioning from the traditional distribution model of supplying products by the truckload to brick-and-mortar stores to an e-commerce model of fulfilling individual orders for its retail clients and shipping them to a single residence, she said.

Slyster agreed with the industry consensus on the growth of e-commerce and its potential to provide new jobs.

“Consumers will desire to continue to consume,” she said. “Logistics is getting consumers the right product at the right time for the right price.”

Although logistics companies are turning increasingly to computers and robotics to manage so-called “omni-channel” distribution — handling both traditional and e-commerce at a single warehouse — those trends don’t necessarily mean a loss of good jobs, Slyster said.

“If anything, I see more warehouse jobs in the future even with automation as long as it’s omni-channel,” she said.

That’s because individual fulfillment on the e-commerce side requires as many as four times more employees as the traditional warehouse model, Slyster said.

It simply takes more people to fulfill individual orders than to fill a truck for a retail store.

Eric Schwarz, director of the Machine Intelligence Lab at the University of Florida, agreed with Slyster.

Loading a truck already can be entirely mechanized in the warehouse, Schwarz said. A human is still needed only at the loading dock to drive the truck away.

But in a warehouse fulfillment center like the ones operated by Amazon, filling order requires more human labor because of the range of products and the variety of their characteristics, including size and weight, he said.

A fulfillment center must handle everything from stuffed animals to chewing gum and items weighing from hundreds of pounds to a few ounces, Schwarz said.

Driving jobs may disappear

The one area that might see a dramatic change resulting in a loss of jobs is at the loading dock, Schwarz and Slyster agreed, because of the rise of self-driving, or “autonomous,” trucks.

Schwarz predicted distribution companies will begin using self-driving trucks in about five years. A driver will probably take the truck from the warehouse to some spot on the highway, probably a rest stop, where the autonomous system will take over until it reaches a highway stop near its destination, he said.

If that system proves viable, widespread adoption could come in about 10 years, Schwarz said.

Slyster offered a similar timeline.

“I would hope in five years, early adopters will be there,” said Slyster, adding the technology will become more common in 10 years.

One possible obstacle to widespread deployment of autonomous trucks, and autonomous vehicles in general, would be public and/or consumer acceptance, Schwarz and Slyster said.

“For hundreds of years, people have gotten worked up that automation is going to destroy jobs and that there’ll be no jobs left,” said Jim Dewey, director of economic analysis at Florida Polytechnic University in Lakeland.

What’s overlooked is that automation complements other jobs and boosts worker productivity, both leading to more jobs, albeit different kinds of employment, he said.

Robotics, computerization and other types of workforce automation won’t affect today’s workers in their 20s and 30s, who can more easily retrain for the next generation of employment, Dewey said.

Older workers at risk

It’s the older workers who will take the hit.

“Once you’ve reached a certain age, it’s not easy to retrain,” he said. “It follows that the person directly put out of work by this type of automation will never recover to his previous income level.”

If for no other reason, Dewey said, most workers reach their peak earning power in their 40s and 50s. Starting again in a new field means starting at the bottom of the career ladder.

For workers looking at new careers who can’t return to college, he said, “focus on job involving interpretative skills and common sense judgment and not repetitive, mechanical skills.”

That would include plumbers, electrician and home remodelers or in health care — the kinds of jobs still in demand, Dewey said.

“Those kinds of jobs have not suffered the same kind of decline,” he added. “What might be down for you won’t be down for your grandchildren. Just because your sky is falling doesn’t mean their sky is falling.”

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