As the 2016 election cycle heats up, South Carolina grabs national attention as the first primary in the South. The Palmetto State should take this opportunity to define the national agenda — putting a spotlight on what America needs to succeed.

One issue that deserves a place in every candidate’s policy proposals is workforce development. Our manufacturers — the companies that create the products that touch each of our lives — are renowned innovators in the global marketplace. Yet, manufacturers’ potential — and therefore the nation’s potential — is threatened by a shortage of skilled employees.

Even as many college graduates struggle to find work, manufacturers cannot fill a significant proportion of their open positions. Manufacturing executives report that applicants lack the basic technical training, math skills and problem-solving abilities these often high-tech jobs require. As a result, 2 million manufacturing jobs are likely to go unfilled over the next decade.

Some may not realize that manufacturing companies are the right place for many of our nation’s young people. Modern manufacturing differs greatly from its past — the gritty factories, simple tools and rudimentary machines that may come to mind.

Today’s manufacturers are producing life-saving pharmaceuticals, steering us toward more sustainable energy and developing agricultural technologies to feed the world and digital products to connect it. South Carolina’s own Milliken & Company, for example, has developed a material that will make windmill blades last longer and generate more power. And Boeing is driving the aeronautical industry forward, from its location in North Charleston.

There are challenging and meaningful careers available in these sectors, and we owe it to students at all levels to make them aware of what can await them if they acquire the right skills. More importantly, we must prepare them to seize the opportunity.

From high schools and community colleges to trade schools and elite universities, we must better align what we’re teaching with what our graduates will need to build rewarding careers. It’s something Trident Technical College is working hard on, as is the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM). The Tri-County Cradle to Career Collaborative and the four local school superintendents are working hard as well. But we need many partners.

Companies, education leaders, elected officials, parents and members of the community need to join us in supporting programs and initiatives designed to arm students with marketable skills.

Secondary and post-secondary schools must evolve their programs alongside the industry to strengthen our teaching of STEM courses, producing the science, technology, engineering and mathematics talent employers desperately need. And we should work with the companies themselves to develop hands-on learning opportunities. Work-based learning, adult apprenticeships and youth apprenticeships enable individuals to train in a field while earning a paycheck many rely on to meet their financial and family obligations.

Ultimately, pursuing these educational opportunities can pay off not only with an in-demand job but also a rewarding career. And it doesn’t require a mountain of debt.

As our students build their analytical and problem-solving abilities through these programs, our nation’s leaders should apply the same skills in Washington, D.C. The next U.S. president and our representatives in Congress must act to remove the barriers to manufacturing’s increased success, and the NAM has laid out the solutions we need in a new policy platform “Competing to Win,” manufacturers’ agenda for economic growth and American exceptionalism.

In this election, South Carolina can help the country select leaders willing to set aside the political posturing and commit to solving problems and defending the values that make America exceptional — free enterprise, competitiveness, individual liberty and equal opportunity.

With such leaders at the helm, we can build a stronger economy — one with more well-paid, promising job opportunities that will empower students to contribute their talents to our nation’s success.

Mary Thornley, Ph.D., has been president of Trident Technical College since 1991. Jay Timmons is president and CEO of the National Association of Manufacturers. He is speaking today at Trident Tech on workforce development and tax, regulatory and legal reform.