Bobby Hitt SC Commerce Department (copy)

Bobby Hitt, secretary of the South Carolina Department of Commerce, says there will be a greater focus on improving education and training in rural counties to help some of the state's poorest areas share in manufacturing growth. Provided/S.C. Department of Commerce

Now that aerospace and automotive industries are anchoring South Carolina's fast-growing coastal and Upstate regions, Commerce Department chief Bobby Hitt is turning his attention to the places and people that have so far been shut out of a recent manufacturing boom.

It means working more closely with educators in some of the poorest school districts so when good jobs become available, the workforce will be ready.

"When school superintendents are asked what it would mean to have a large company employing several hundred people in their area, they say it would change the entire landscape for the county," said Hitt, who is entering his ninth year as head of the state's top industrial recruiting agency.

"We know that's true, but wishing it doesn't make it so," he said. "It requires preparation, and we've been charged with doing more preparation to help our more rural counties."

He said the directive comes from Gov. Henry McMaster, who outlined a budget plan that gives $100 million to  Hitt's agency to help recruit jobs to 28 rural school districts and directs another $63 million to train workers for existing job openings.

In creating a state-backed economic development effort for those districts, McMaster said Commerce "must provide the spark" for rural communities to get their share of manufacturing growth. 

bodyworklong volvo opening.jpg (copy) (copy)

Employees at Volvo Cars' manufacturing campus in Berkeley County work on the body of an S60 sedan. The automaker worked with the state's Commerce Department and technical college system to help train workers at the $1.1 billion plant. File/Wade Spees/Staff

The money includes $10 million for internships aimed at high school students and $22 million for technical college scholarships, allowing students to earn trade certificates for free.

"The governor recommended a pretty sizable amount of money for us to go into those counties and try to do some things to put them in a better position to win," Hitt said. "We are working to see what the education needs are. It's no longer a one size fits all."

Such measures have support at the Statehouse, where lawmakers — in the wake of The Post and Courier’s Minimally Adequate series — have pledged to overhaul an education system that fails to prepare thousands of students for college or the modern workforce.

Hitt has had a good run at Commerce since being appointed in 2011 by former Gov. Nikki Haley to head the agency. During his tenure, the department has recruited more than $35 billion in capital investments by businesses that have committed to creating nearly 130,000 jobs.

The biggest wins have been in counties with ready infrastructure and growing populations, like the Charleston region where vehicle makers Volvo Cars and Mercedes-Benz Vans recently started production.

"Counties with interstates do well, and counties next door to them do pretty well too — people there move around for work and they have good access to retail," he said. "When you get about two counties from the interstate, the transportation system and other systems that are the basics of success, like education and healthcare, aren't as good."

We're starting a weekly newsletter about the business stories that are shaping Charleston and South Carolina. Get ahead with us - it's free.

For example, some regions don't have water systems that are large enough to handle a big industry, so they are never in the running, even if the local labor pool is top-notch. So Commerce is working with the state's Rural Infrastructure Authority to get grants and loans to communities in need of water system upgrades.

"We've got parts of our state that might as well be deserts from a business point of view because they don't have the basic water and sewer requirements for us to recruit," Hitt said.

And the state's Coordinating Council for Workforce Development, a division of Commerce, is working closer than ever with local educators to meet their needs.

That's important as South Carolina faces a continuing worker shortage, with a statewide unemployment rate at 3.3 percent. In addition to creating new jobs, Hitt said Commerce is focusing on moving underemployed workers in low-paying fields into better jobs with health care and other benefits.

Such an initiative was pioneered in Berkeley County, where Commerce promised to help Volvo fill 4,000 positions over a five-year span. Those who complete the 50-hour program get a certificate indicating they have the equivalent of one year of manufacturing experience.

"We've placed up to 500 people in that program into jobs," said Hitt, adding similar initiatives will take place in other parts of the state.

Hitt, a former newspaper editor and BMW executive, said he didn't plan to stay in his current job as long as he has, but retirement has never suited him.

"I thought I might stick around for four years, but here I am going on year nine," he said. "The governor asked me to stay and I'll stay as long as it's working and we have good momentum. I want to keep it going and make sure that when I hand it off, it's running like a top."

Seanna Adcox of The Post and Courier contributed to this report. Reach David Wren at 843-937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_