At West Ashley High School, students count the revolutions of a spinning wheel to figure how fast their newly made robotic devices will travel.
The jobs-skills mismatch in S.C.
High-skilled (Bachelor's or higher)*
Jobs in work force 17%
People in work force 26%
*This means more people are graduating from four-year colleges than there are jobs available for them.
Mid-skilled (Associate or certificate)*
Jobs in work force 45%
People in work force 29%
*This means more jobs are available that require two-year degrees or a certificate than there are people with the degrees to fill them.
Low-skilled (High school or less)*
Jobs in work force 38%
People in work force 45%
*This means more people are graduating from high school with no further education or are dropping out than there are jobs for them.
S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce; S.C. Department of Education
They learn gear ratios and timing, use calipers and micrometers, install motors and incorporate other skills using science, technology, engineering and math to build Erector set-looking creatures on metal frames.
They program robots to scoop up balls, race around or do a circle with the push of a button.
The class is called mechatronics. It combines electronics and mechanical engineering, and it's touted as the future of America's industrial job market.
"They are learning so much, and they don't even realize it," teacher Nicholas Holmes said. "The thought that goes into this is real outside world, career-oriented."
Students signed up in classes that use STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) in West Ashley High and other schools already are gearing up for the jobs that lie ahead.
But the Lowcountry and the state, at the current pace, won't produce enough people with the necessary skills to fill the number of jobs requiring those skills over the next decade or so.
That's the assessment by the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce and separately by University of South Carolina economists.
Because of the projected gap between required skills and available workers, the Charleston area might not have enough skilled laborers to fill the 25,000 new jobs expected in the Lowcountry over the next five years, said Mary Graham, chamber senior vice president of business advocacy. The USC study predicts the state could face a major shortfall of more than 114,000 college-educated workers, including two-year and four-year degrees, by 2030.
"We have significant job gaps, and we must move quickly to fill them or the projected job growth won't occur because there won't be an available workforce to fill them," Graham said.
One proposed solution is to focus education efforts on skills training and programs that emphasize STEM, like Holmes' class and others. Another is to change high school and college curriculums. Others say more state funding is needed for expensive equipment in hands-on learning centers.
"We hear from the manufacturing community that they are having a hard time filling entry-level jobs," Graham said. "The jobs are being filled by recruiting the skills from outside our region. ... We want to ensure that our local residents have the same opportunity."
Major industries in the Charleston area, such as Boeing Co., require workers with highly specified skills, and those with STEM backgrounds are critical to success, said Jack Jones, top executive at Boeing's 787 assembly plant in North Charleston.
He challenged the state's education system "to step up its game" to produce more workers with technical training.
"We are the second most-regulated industry in the U.S. next to nuclear," Jones said. "The FAA has inside residents in our factory to check certification of every employee who touches any part of the airplane. They have to demonstrate to the regulators every day that they can read engineering drawings, that they can use high-tech tools and that they are not going to produce any errors. You can't put somebody there who doesn't have the basic fundamentals on that aircraft."
Jones said South Carolina workers have the expertise to build jets. But for every hire, the local aircraft maker has to weed through five resumes.
"The problem is giving us enough good, qualified workers," he said.
Jones wants lawmakers to put more money into the programs that support businesses such as Boeing. The chamber, too, is urging lawmakers to address the problem in its Degrees of Change initiative.
The two-pronged chamber measure intends to educate business leaders about gaps in the degrees being offered post-high school and the jobs being created and, more importantly, to urge legislators to change the educational structure in higher education, Graham said.
"We don't have the degrees we need to fill the jobs that are being created," she said.
Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Charleston, chairs a committee studying the possible merger of the Medical University of South Carolina and the College of Charleston.
Studies showing the widening gap between skilled workers and available jobs punctuates the need for a research university that does more than medical studies in Charleston, said Merrill, who co-sponsored the bill to merge the two schools.
"They illustrate that our institutions of higher education are not working hand in glove with the job creators the way we need them to right now," he said.
The solution, said Merrill, who sits on the House budget-writing Ways and Means Committee, is not more money.
"We need to eliminate the programs that are unnecessary and replace them with the ones that are needed," he said. "It can't be all about addition. It has to be about addition and subtraction of programs."
Boeing's Jones said lawmakers need to put money in the right programs to set up a business for success in South Carolina.
"These are critical curriculums we need to support STEM," he said, "especially in the rural areas where the pool for new talent could come."
Call to action
Jobs requiring a college degree, including two-year and four-year programs, will jump from 61.5 percent in 2013 to 66.7 percent in 2030, according to the USC study. A retired business executive said that study must be taken as a call to action.
"If South Carolina is going to thrive as we all wish, meeting the educational needs of our growing economy has to be a top priority," said Jim Morton, who worked in management at Michelin and Nissan and is helping spearhead the new Competing Through Knowledge effort. "Our state needs a comprehensive plan."
The S.C. Business Leaders Higher Education Council, which includes former governors Jim Hodges and David Beasley, launched Competing Through Knowledge to address the state's skills gap.
"I don't think any of us has a conclusion of the steps we need to take," said Hodges, "but I do think the greater emphasis on STEM education is going to be part of this."
The initiative's findings are due out this summer.
Degrees of change
State Education Superintendent Mick Zais said the problem isn't that the state needs more people with college degrees. The issue is that some of the degrees students are earning don't match the jobs to be filled.
Twenty-six percent of the state's workforce has a four-year college degree or higher while just 17 percent of all jobs in the workforce require a bachelor's degree, Zais said.
"That's why there are so many college graduates in Charleston tending bars, waiting tables and working in retail," Zais said. "They have four-year degrees, but they are not in areas where they are needed. Having a degree in sociology, for instance, won't get you a job."
At Midlands Technical College in Columbia, for instance, Zais said a quarter of current students already have four-year degrees. They're just not the right degrees to land the job they want or are being offered.
"They graduate from college with a diploma and a lot of debt and can't find a job," he said. "They come back to tech to get an associate degree."
That skills-versus-jobs gap is only going to widen unless changes are made to curriculums and more money is set aside for classes that require special skills, said Mary Thornley, president of Trident Technical College.
"The jobs growing in the greatest number are those in the middle skills that require an associate degree or certificate. They represent 45 percent of the jobs, but only 29 percent have the skills. Our problem in South Carolina is the technician level. It's a post-secondary degree but not at the baccalaureate level. The middle-skilled jobs are here already, and there aren't enough people with the skills to fill them."
Trident Tech offers 75 STEM-related programs, but Thornley said some offerings, such as those for radiology technicians and machine tool classes, have waiting lists up to 2Ĺ years because STEM-based degrees require expensive equipment for hands-on learning.
"A lot of our programs are based on lab availability and machinery availability," Thornley said, "and it's critical that lawmakers provide funding for the equipment and manpower."
The state superintendent said the biggest shortage in the industrial workplace is in mechatronics. Robots might do the work in manufacturing plants, but somebody has to be able to build, program, maintain and repair the high-tech machinery, he said.
The shortage is so acute that BMW's car-manufacturing plant in the Upstate started an apprenticeship program two years ago through its BMW Scholars Program.
The program pays part of the tuition at area tech and community colleges for students to learn a skill in mechatronics and related automotive technology courses while at the same time requiring them to work 20 hours a week at BMW.
The plant has 55 BMW scholars. Twenty-six have graduated and are working at the automobile assembly plant in Greer. BMW does not guarantee full-time work at the plant upon graduation, but that is the automaker's goal, said company spokeswoman Sky Foster.
"The program is extremely popular, especially with the local tech schools we partner with," Foster said. "It gives students the opportunity to learn tech skills, go to work and have the possibility of a full-time job when they graduate. That's a nice formula for success."
Root of the problem
Zais trumpeted BMW's program and efforts to offer expanded college-degree options, but he said the real change needs to start in lower grades.
The state's high school curriculum needs to be altered because most students will never use math's quadratic formula or English's iambic pentameter in real-world jobs, he said.
"High school has an antiquated, obsolete standard curriculum," Zais said.
"We teach math in our high schools in an abstract way. We use symbols for unknown quantities. We don't teach it to solve real-world problems. Most students don't need Algebra II. They could substitute personal finance or computer programming instead. Our current focus is on preparing kids for a four-year school, not preparing them for life."
He also said the system stigmatizes children who pursue technical careers, even though occupations like welding, carpentry, masonry and electronics can pay handsome salaries.
"Our system says if you are not going to college, you are a second-class citizen," Zais said. "Education is about what you know. Training is based on what you can do. To do something, you have to know something about it. Our school focus is on knowledge and not skills and talent. We need to change our focus."
Besides STEM-related classes offered at high schools throughout the state, other efforts also are underway to help workers and educators.
The Citadel offers the STEM Center of Excellence for grade-school teachers to learn new skills and take them back to the classroom. It even offers a master's in interdisciplinary STEM studies. About 50-75 Lowcountry teachers a year take advantage of STEM classes at The Citadel, according to Glenda La Rue, director of the center.
STEM Centers SC offers statewide help while the Governor's School for Math and Science in Hartsville offers up to 300 high school juniors and seniors a STEM-based education through a two-year program.
Trident Technical College recently launched a new $30 million nursing center to help meet the demand for nursing jobs as baby boomers enter old age.
The USC study projects a shortage of 17,000 nurses with associate degrees by 2030. At the same time, the college is trying to raise $79 million for a new aeronautics training center. Thornley has asked the state for $50 million.
"This is a statewide need," she said. "The aerospace cluster affects the whole state. If we want the same ripple effect that BMW started 20 years ago so suppliers continue to come to the state, we need to keep the cluster moving here in the Lowcountry."
Bill Nye, the "Science Guy," said in a recent interview on the Entertainment Industries Council TV Network that the nation is at a crossroads. If science and technology aren't embraced now by the education system, particularly for middle school students, the U.S. will fall behind other countries.
If changes are made now, he said, "In a decade we'll have enough engineers and scientists to change the world."
Reach Warren L. Wise at 937-5524 or twitter.com/warrenlancewise.
Students in the mechatronics class at West Ashley High School test the robots they built for lifting and blocking skills. Dustin Taft (from left), teacher Nicholas Holmes, Anthony Brown, Cade Bergman, James Daniel and Edward Black do testing.×
Upstate automaker BMW offers apprenticeship programs to students taking mechatronics and other automotive-related courses at nearby trade schools in the Upstate through the automakerís scholars program. Student Michael Aquilera (left) works with Joe Collins, a BMW equipment service associate, on one of the robots near the engine installation station.×