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Turnkey Talent for Aerospace

Florida’s large military community provides a reliable source of skilled workers for a fast-growing industry

After serving as a contractor for NASA on Florida’s Space Coast for many years, InDyne Inc. found itself with a nice problem to have.

“We grew so big, we’re no longer a small business. So we can’t compete for small business contracts anymore,” says Jim Heald, vice president of strategic programs at InDyne.

Today, the company’s Florida operations include a large presence in the Panhandle. InDyne is part of a joint venture overseeing the target ranges for Eglin Air Force Base, where the military tests air-based armaments including missiles, bombs, and ammunition against ground- and sea-based targets. Along with operating support and security contracts at other military and government facilities throughout Florida, InDyne and its subcontractor partners employ nearly  1,000 statewide.

As one of more than 500 aerospace businesses working throughout the state, InDyne is in good company. Florida’s two spaceports and 20 major military installations make the state a prime destination for aviation, aerospace and defense companies. Small wonder Florida ranks second nationwide in aerospace manufacturing establishments, with annual exports exceeding $5.2 billion.

“If you look at the veterans who come out of the service, a lot of them have been trained in the Navy for shipboard electronics or in the Air Force for avionics,” says Heald. “They are absolutely gold to get hold of.”

But the presence of military and aerospace facilities isn’t the only reason companies including InDyne find Florida attractive. The military installations that draw many aerospace companies to the state also provide a prime source of turnkey talent, highly skilled military personnel leaving the service and seeking new careers. More than 9,000 veterans transition out of the military in Florida each year, and many have the in-demand skills the aerospace sector needs right now.

“If you look at the veterans who come out of the service, a lot of them have been trained in the Navy for shipboard electronics or in the Air Force for avionics,” says Heald. “They are absolutely gold to get hold of.”

Employers value the state’s 1.6 million military veterans for more than their training, Heald adds. “They are mature, motivated, and technically competent,” he says. “It’s very easy to provide on-the-job training because they already have the basic skills and a few years of practice.”

As home to Eglin Air Force Base, the Panhandle provides opportunities for aerospace companies that extend far beyond operating support, what veterans sometimes jokingly call “roads and commodes.” Responsible for the development, acquisition, testing, deployment, and operation of all of the Air Force’s air-delivered weapons, Eglin is a “cradle-to-grave operation that begins with the realm of what’s possible to… operations and testing,” Heald says. “It’s a full ecosystem.”

To find the talent that meets the varied needs of the sector, the Panhandle has developed a similar ecosystem of services to support veterans in their transition to post-military careers. Founded in 2013, the Tri-County Community Partnership Initiative brought together state, county, Air Force, and business representatives to identify ways to support the region’s aerospace community. An early emphasis was on helping address career transition needs for veterans preparing to leave the service.

“What we’ve found is some of the people who are not planning to stay in Florida are doing so because they’re uninformed,” Heald says. “They may not know about the job market, the cost of living, the salary structure, and pay and benefits. With the information we’ve gathered, we’ve been able to feed information to assist with the career transition.”

Heald knows the transition to civilian life firsthand. After retiring from the Air Force in 2001, the Air Force colonel found himself first at NASA, then working for InDyne at Cape Canaveral, a path similar to those followed by thousands of veterans across Florida each year. “You’re no longer wearing rank,” Heald says. “You’re now Mr. or Mrs.”

Today, the Panhandle is home to a number of regional partnerships and services focused on training and retaining skilled military veterans. CareerSource Okaloosa Walton has developed a targeted Transition Assistance Program (TAP), which surveys veterans to help them identify skills with value in the local workforce and helps prepare them for new careers. Other regional services include the Technology Coast Manufacturing and Engineering Network (TeCMEN) and Ft. Walton Beach’s Veterans Business Accelerator, which prepares veterans to start new businesses in the region. Aerospace companies benefit from the state’s broader services, including Veterans Florida and its community colleges and four-year universities, which provide specialized workforce training options that can give veterans job-specific skills.