Central Moloney Inc. (CMI), a manufacturer of distribution transformers and transformer components headquartered in Pine Pluff, Ark., had a long history in the Delta region of Arkansas. Recently, however, CEO Chris Hart recognized that the area’s declining population and resulting labor force constraints were slowing the company’s growth—at exactly the wrong time.
“The demand on transformers is at an all-time high,” says Hart, pointing to the increasing emphasis on strengthening and hardening the electrical grid and the explosive growth of electric vehicles. “Less than a decade ago there were over 20 manufacturers of transformers in the United States, and now there are only eight.” For those left standing, demand has outpaced supply. “We have a backlog that is years deep now. We have one-fifth of the number of customers we had this time two years ago, and that’s because we’ve refused to make commitments to people that we can’t live up to. Demand is so high, we’ve basically circled the wagons around the people that have been historical partners. So we knew we had to grow and expand.”
Hart had looked at states to its west, and had even chosen a site, but it fell through. Then a moment of serendipity came when Hart received a cold-call email from Shane Chadwick at Florida’s Great Northwest, the regional economic development organization for the Florida Panhandle. “I don’t know what made me respond to it, but I did,” says Hart, who initially declined Chadwick’s offer of a tour. “Every reason I gave him, he had an answer for.”
Hart went down to see Bay County, and was sold on the area even before finding a building that was perfectly suited to CMI’s operations. “We weren’t going to have to build and we could basically do some minor modifications to a building that was new enough to where an invoice had never been generated out of it,” says Hart. “It was the perfect scenario.”
Solid Pipeline of Talent
Even more critical than a quick turnaround, the new location gave CMI access to what it needed most: a solid pipeline of outstanding talent. “When transformers fail, it gets a lot of attention,” says Hart. “And transformers are still roughly built the same way they were many decades ago—as hard as we tried to modernize, we still depend on people power. So aside from the beautiful weather and the beaches right down the road and the building that was in place, it was really about the people of northwest Florida. We have found that to be even better than what we expected.”
The numbers support a trend of both companies and workers flocking to Florida. In 2023, for the first time in at least 40 years, Florida overtook New York as the state with the most jobs. The Sunshine State also led the country in net migration according to the most recent U.S. Census numbers, adding more than 388,000 residents between 2016-20, which is nearly double than the next state on the list.
Companies like Florida Power & Light Company, the largest energy company in the U.S., are determined to increase that talent influx further. In 2022, FPL’s Office of Economic Development launched the “WonderFL” talent campaign, which highlights the state’s unique attributes, from its vibrant lifestyle to its competitive business environment, and helps new residents find the resources they need to get acclimated quickly.
Where previously, Central Moloney had struggled to find qualified applicants, today the company receives “roughly 50 unsolicited resumes a day, and all from extremely qualified people” to the Bay County location, says Hart.
It helps that universities, colleges and tech schools are producing a continuous influx of skilled graduates. Institutions like the University of Florida, Florida State University, and the University of Miami have consistently ranked among the top in the nation, producing graduates in disciplines ranging from engineering and medicine to business and arts. And local schools have for years engaged in partnerships with area businesses to ensure that students have real-world knowledge and expertise when they apply for jobs.
“Haney Technical College in Bay County, Florida, is welding our product right now,” says Hart. “And they’re not just training welders—they’re training welders on how to do what we do. So the level of partnership and the cooperation from the people in Bay County—it’s shocking, frankly.”
A Multi-Pronged Approach
Carol Craig, CEO of Sidus Space, a multi-faceted Space and Data-as-a-Service satellite company, agrees. “It helps when you have a community that gets it,” she says. Sidus has been operating on the Space Coast since 2004, so she is well acquainted with the collaboration available in Florida’s technical schools.
She points to the Certified Production Technician (CPT) program from the Space Coast EDC as evidence of a supportive ecosystem. CPT focuses on incorporating machining in local colleges, such as Eastern Florida State College, as well as some of the high schools, with an emphasis on manufacturing. That early training will help prepare students for positions at Sidus, where on-the-job training is a bit more challenging. “We build complex space hardware, and it’s almost like every single time we build something, it’s a one-off,” says Craig. “You really do have to have that understanding and that experience. It can’t just be, everyone’s learning as we go.”
Having that training built into the education infrastructure helps to keep the pipeline full even at a time when more and more companies are moving into the state. “It’s a challenge in some ways,” says Craig. “With companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin and the growth of Northrop Grumman, Embraer and others, you are competing for talent.” But, she adds, the workforce has grown sufficiently diverse that there’s opportunity for all. “Everybody has different things that they’re looking for when they’re looking for talent. So there are a lot of skilled personnel that are looking for smaller companies that are up and coming, and they don’t necessarily want the large companies. So there’s something for everybody when it comes to employees and the talent pool that’s out there.”
Craig is also proactive about getting access to top talent via student internship programs at area schools, such as Florida Tech, University of Central Florida and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. This past year, the program brought in 18 interns, several of whom were offered jobs upon graduation. “The state has a wonderful education system, large and small, and when you’re based in Brevard County, you can access all of that.”
And Sidus doesn’t stop at the college level. In order to inspire more young people, and particularly girls, to enter STEM careers, Craig also works with Junior Achievement, an organization that brings programs around entrepreneurship, business and financial literacy and STEM careers to K-12 students.
Craig points to the Kennedy Space Center, NASA’s primary launch center for human spaceflight, as another big talent draw, and it helps to give context to job candidates from outside the area. “As soon as you say Cape Canaveral, they say, ‘Okay, got it,’ There’s an awareness and an excitement there,” she says. “And then you add tourism, no state income tax, the weather—it doesn’t get much better.”
Both Hart and Craig point to the favorable business climate as a huge draw for businesses of any size. With the state’s pro-business tax policies, companies can invest more of their profits back into growth, and their employees can keep more of their paychecks. Florida also has consistently worked to reduce bureaucratic red tape, creating an environment where businesses can thrive without unnecessary hurdles.
“We started building product literally 365 days from the date we signed the sublease on the building,” says Hart.
CMI is now attempting to replicate that success with a new manufacturing facility in Crestview, Fl. In July, the company announced it would build a state-of-the-art 302,000 sq. ft. building on a 48-acre parcel at the Shoal River Ranch Gigasite. The cost of constructing and equipping the new advanced manufacturing facility is projected to be $50 million, and as the company scales up to full production, it is expected to create 350 new jobs.
And that likely won’t be the end of CMI’s Florida expansion. “Maybe I’ve just missed out and it’s like this everywhere else in the world, but I’ll tell you, I don’t want to give everywhere else in the world a chance—I’ve found our home away from home.”