South Carolina’s recent push to create industry clusters – particularly around the automotive and aerospace sectors and their suppliers – hinges in large part on one very big unknown: Will the state’s system of technical schools and colleges be able to keep those industries supplied with a steady stream of qualified workers?
In the short term, South Carolina’s system of technical colleges connects new companies with the workers they need to get off the ground. Over the longer term, the major universities provide the graduates who will fill the engineering and executive positions in these businesses. But whether South Carolinians can access these opportunities is the question a bipartisan group of state political, business and education leaders hope to answer in a forthcoming study showing where the gaps in workforce readiness are right now, and where those gaps will be in 20 years.
This study, conducted by economists at the University of South Carolina, will provide insight to policymakers and education leaders about the future of the state’s workforce needs. The goal will be to create new programs or strengthen existing ones, increase access to all levels of educational opportunities, and provide enough opportunities for success that the state’s best and brightest will stay home for their careers.
“Cluster development and a diverse economy are important components in helping to bring good jobs to South Carolina, and identifying any existing mismatch between the educational requirements of these jobs and the current educational profile of the workforce is a necessary first step towards ensuring that South Carolinians are equipped with the necessary skill sets for these jobs,” says Joseph Von Nessen, the USC research economist who is conducting the study on workforce gaps.
Ambushed by the Economy
This push for a focus on the educational attainment of South Carolinians actually came about more than four years ago, when researchers first sought to answer many of these questions. An initial report came out in August 2009, just after the 18-month economic downturn had ended. It relies on data collected before the downturn began in late 2007, and it is noted throughout the report that the impact of the recession would not be fully known for some time. Still, the report states: “Without knowledge gained through higher education, individuals simply cannot compete in the 21st century economy.”
The goal at the time was to have nearly one-third of the state’s working-age population holding bachelor’s degrees by 2030. To meet the goal, more high school students would have to decide to attend and complete college, and more adults without degrees would have to decide to return to school.
“Competing Through Knowledge,” a group of business executives, politicians and education leaders, is seeking policy options that can help South Carolina reach that goal despite the continued economic turmoil and rising tuition at the state’s four-year colleges and universities. The group hopes to have its new study completed before the end of the year and have a firm plan in place by the first quarter of 2014. “The people involved in this won’t feel like they have succeeded unless something tangible comes out,” says Mike Fitts, a spokesman for the group. Those leaders include David Wilkins, the former U.S. ambassador to Canada under President George W. Bush and former speaker of the S.C. House of Representatives; former Governors David Beasley and James Hodges; and the Columbia Mayor.
Ad Hoc Workforce Development
For decades, South Carolina’s technical schools have been the go-to trainer for the state’s industries – especially for companies looking to build, relocate or expand manufacturing operations here.
“The technical college training programs began in 1961 as an economic development incentive designed to guarantee that South Carolina could remain competitive through changing economic circumstances,” says Susan Pretulak, vice president of economic development and workforce competitiveness for readySC, a division of the S.C. Technical College System. “That mission hasn’t changed.”
But the nature of that manufacturing and training has changed dramatically with the computer age and robotics. Factory workers now work in very clean environments and more often than not need skills more akin to engineers or computer technicians.
“The industries have changed. The training programs have changed. The recruiting processes have changed,” Susan says. “These facilities house some of the world’s most technologically advanced machinery and robotics. In order to successfully operate equipment of that caliber, you need skills.”
When companies locate in South Carolina and need training for new employees, ranging from a dozen to 1,200, the technical schools are there to provide that training, Susan explains.
“School systems and the technical colleges are very flexible,” says Mark Patterson, personnel manager at Michelin’s Lexington tire manufacturing site, which employs more than 2,000 workers. “They want to work with us in every way that they can. The Midlands is home to some of the best school districts in the state, as well as some of the best technical schools, all of which supply us with the talent that we are looking for. They’re training people for where the jobs are in the future.”
When elevator rail manufacturer Monteferro USA first moved to Orangeburg County in 2003, state training helped prepare the company’s first batch of workers for jobs involving sorting and repackaging imported standard rails and machining and customizing basic steel rails for customers. Bill Welch, the company’s president and general manager, says they plan to double its workforce after it completes a $2.1 million expansion at its Orangeburg facility. The site was chosen for the expansion in large part because of lower transportation costs out of the South Carolina plant, but also, Bill says, because he knew he could find the workers.
“I have found a lot of folks from their early 40s to their early 60s who were laid off for one reason or another,” Bill says. “They have a great work ethic and they have done quite well.”
Not your Grandfather’s Factory Job
Part of the ongoing work of keeping a ready workforce is selling youth on just how much manufacturing has changed and will change in their lifetimes. Mark says people often think of manufacturing as it was in the early and mid-20th century, when jobs were low-skill and low-paying.
The first step, Mark says, is familiarizing potential workers with their operations. That includes starting as early as middle and elementary school, making presentations to students and supporting educational initiatives to push students toward math and science courses.
“It’s a challenge that we’ve got to continue to develop and market careers in manufacturing, not just the tire industry,” Mark says.
It also includes getting creative. Michelin has a type of co-op program for students who want to study at Midlands Tech for an automation technician degree. Those students work at Michelin and get a scholarship to go to school.
“Ideally, they would come to work for us after they complete their degree,” Mark says.
Taking some of that training and recruiting innovation and spreading it across the state and across industries is just one piece of the workforce readiness puzzle. The key will be identifying skill gaps, both in today’s workforce and in tomorrow’s. USC’s economist Joseph Von Nessen says the study will look at skill gaps across all industries in South Carolina.
“During the recession, we saw a great number of the manufacturing workforce laid off,” Joseph says. “Now that manufacturing is coming back, new jobs are being created, but they are not the same jobs. Workers who were laid off in 2008 need additional training, particularly in terms of technical proficiencies.”
Filling the Gaps Today and Tomorrow
In the early days of the economic recovery, economists used terms like “jobless recovery” and “structural unemployment” to describe South Carolina’s persistently high unemployment rate, which topped out at levels not seen since the Great Depression.
In September 2010, state officials noted that there were more than 50,000 available jobs in South Carolina while unemployment remained at 11 percent. The problem was explained as a skills mismatch. People laid off from textile mills were not prepared for higher-tech manufacturing jobs.
“South Carolina’s skills gap continues to be our biggest challenge,” readySC’s Susan Pretulak says. “The majority of future jobs in the state will require more than a high school diploma but less than a four-year degree.”
Fixing that “structural unemployment” is the goal of the new study and the Competing Through Knowledge organization.
“You have to identify where these gaps are in education and take steps to correct that,” Joseph says. “You can create programs at the technical colleges to allow a laid-off worker to get up to speed on the skills needed to take these new jobs that are coming to South Carolina.”
The report is expected to be ready before the end of the year, and the Competing Through Knowledge group hopes to have a concrete proposal for policymakers by the first quarter of 2014. They will be looking not just at filling the gaps in today’s workforce, but also preparing for tomorrow’s jobs.
“We have a lot of emerging economic clusters, from textiles to wind turbines,” Mike Fitts says. “This is a longer-term look ahead at what sectors are growing and where opportunities might be. It’s less business-specific and more about industries.”
It also includes identifying those industries the state wants to pursue, Joseph says.
“What clusters are going to be most important? Which clusters do South Carolina have a competitive advantage in that arise from features such as our infrastructure, our overall location or our port?” he says. “When we decide the best route to pursue, one of the first things we ask is how do we create a workforce that’s conducive to that.”
The group is modeling its efforts after Virginia’s “Grow by Degrees” program created in 2009 after nearly a decade of dwindling public financing for higher education there.
South Carolina has seen the same decrease in public education funding, with its flagship university USC, for example, getting just 10 percent of its operating budget from the state’s general appropriations fund. During that same time, tuition increased significantly at all South Carolina colleges, including the publicly funded ones. USC President Harris Pastides has proposed a moratorium on tuition increases at all the university system’s colleges and campuses if state lawmakers will increase funding for higher education. Two board members for Competing Through Knowledge highlighted this in a recent newspaper editorial.
“The costs of college tuition have mounted steeply as state budget allocations have been reduced,” wrote former Gov. Jim Hodges and David Pankau, president and chief executive of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of South Carolina. “We in the business community are customers of the state’s higher education system, and we know that it has a vital role to play if South Carolina is to grow and thrive in the high-tech economy of the 21st century. Put bluntly, the state’s economic future depends on the ability of our higher education system to produce more job-ready, two- and four-year college graduates.”