Rice reiterated his talking points on increasing America’s competitiveness in the global economy as well as continuing to bring jobs to his Congressional district, which spans the Pee Dee and Grand Strand. Some major business leaders, however, voiced concern over filling jobs because of a lacking skilled labor force.

“My goal is to give skills to the people that are already here,’ Rice said. “We have a workforce that has suffered from industry from leaving our shores. Thank goodness we have facilities like the one we’re standing in right now, SiMT. Admittedly we have not kept up, but we’re ramping up.”

The French yacht builder Beneteau has called Marion its home away from home since 1986, when it located its first U.S. production facility outside of the country and in the Pee Dee, an area with the feel of rural France that was on the Eastern Seaboard, near an Interstate highway, between New York and Miami, executives said.

However, senior level supervisor Rick Pease said in a presentation that a skilled labor force is one of the company’s biggest challenges at the site.

“From a business point of view, we’re getting competition from the rest of the world,” Rice said. “How can we compete when we do not see the top applicants of the pool? It takes up to 40 conversations to make one hire. We don’t see the competitive edge with these applicants. They may be passing the requirements to graduate, but they are not prepared to enter the workplace.”

The luxury yacht company has churned out more than 8,000 yachts since opening and 250 boats in the past fiscal year at the Marion site where 167 full-time and temps are employed.

“Big boats being a true luxury item, we were hit very hard with this Great Recession,” Pease said. “So it takes a long time for our business to recover, yet we feel that we are on a continually improving track.”

Beneteau isn’t alone in finding quality talent in the area.

AVM Industries General Manager Mike Putinta looks out of state to attract talent and has difficulties even filling production jobs for the automotive manufacturer site in Marion. The company supplies automakers such as General Motors, Toyota and Honda with specialized gas springs. Putinta said future innovation and growth are dependent on a strong workforce to replace veteran employees.

“We got a definite need right now for skilled tradesmen,” Putinta said. “I have jobs that go unfilled, that pay very well, for months because I can’t find the people. I have an $85,000 controls engineer job that I can’t fill locally; sad to say I’ll have to recruit from up north.”

Rodney Berry, economic development director with Rice’s office, explained that the frank discussion from businesses was what he wanted the 100-plus crowd of the economic development community to hear.

“Our theme is how to be competitive and what makes us competitive,” Berry said. “But I asked these folks to be very candid on our downfalls. We’re not going to get a lot of fluff. I hope you folks take note and let’s work on those.”

Florence’s most recent corporate addition is Ruiz Foods, locating in the old Heinz facility, where up to 500 employees are expected to work within the next two years. Senior human resources manager Darryl Davids said the company won’t be in a full hiring frenzy until next year but plans to attract employees to the food manufacturing facility through high wages and strong benefits.

“You’re not going to get the kind of people that you desire to have and you want long term if (wages are) going to be down here,” Davids said. “You need to pay livable wages, and we certainly intend to do that. We’ve got a great benefits package, by the way. Having worked at GE, they compare.”

However Davids admits the site’s new general manager, who has a background with food giant ConAgra, will be coming from Houston.

BY GAVIN JACKSON Morning Newsgjackson@florencenews.com