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The Sunshine Economy

Gaining Altitude: The Aviation Industry in South Florida

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Tom Hudson

In Florida, flight is the number one export. In 2014, almost $4.8 billion worth of aircraft, engines and aircraft parts made in Florida were shipped out of state, putting it in the top 10 for aviation.

Toya Henry wants to enter the family business, but she's not sold on staying in Miami. She's in the adult powerplant program at George T. Baker Aviation Technical College in Miami. The school is a Miami-Dade County Public School that has been training aviation workers since the early days of the industry.

Henry's brother works in aviation maintenance for the U.S. Navy. Her father works across the street from the school at an aircraft maintenance company. Henry wants to see the world after she graduates.

"I want to leave Miami. There are jobs all around the world," she said. "There are different experiences and different training. I want to be able to experience all that before I'm through with aviation."

Henry could leave behind one of the biggest job markets for aviation technicians in the United States. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Miami has the fourth largest aviation job market with an average pay of $55,000 per year.

The Hub

South Florida's geography is an undeniable advantage in aviation, as it is for tourism, trade and finance. Being on the edge of one continent and so close to another are shaping the future of the industry.

The United States leads the world in investing in the aerospace maintenance, repair, overhaul (MRO) business, according to consulting firm ICF International.

In addition, aviation manufacturing and assembly locations have sprouted up across the Southeastern U.S. Boeing builds its Dreamliner 787 in South Carolina. European consortium Airbus is due to start building commercial passenger jets in Alabama later this year. Brazilian manufacturer Embraer has been assembling executive jets in Melbourne, Fla., since 2011, putting mostly American-made parts on airframes made and shipped in from Brazil.

Vice President of Aerospace at ICF Kevin Michaels calls Miami "certainly one of the clusters globally in maintaining aircraft." Location is one reason, but so are rising wages in Asia. ICF estimates there is less than a $10-per-man hour pay difference between U.S. maintenance workers and the pay in some Asian countries.  It was twice that 15 years ago, drawing the work overseas. 

As the pay gap narrows, Michaels calls it "rightshoring."

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Credit Tom Hudson
ATR Americas President Guillaume Gasparri was "surprised" by Miami's aviation industry upon relocating operations from Virginia.

French-Italian plane maker ATR moved to Miami in 2014 because of its geography. The company was combining its North and South American operations and relocated from Virginia to Miami.

ATR Americas President Guillaume Gasparri was surprised to find an industry here.

"It was very easy to find people and to find very good quality people and dual language people," he said. "I didn't expect Miami to be such an aeronautic hub."

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In a journalism career covering news from high global finance to neighborhood infrastructure, Tom Hudson is the Vice President of News and Special Correspondent for WLRN.  He hosts and produces the Sunshine Economy and anchors the Florida Roundup in addition to leading the organization's news engagement strategy.