High marks for region’s economy

Traffic congestion dragged down Charleston’s score in an annual self-evaluation of the region by the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce and the Charleston Regional Development Alliance.

As the nation’s only place that will make both airplanes and automobiles, the Charleston region ranks among the nation’s top sites for advanced industries such as high-tech manufacturing, according to a study released Thursday.

Attracting the educated workforce to take those jobs, however, will continue to be a challenge as metro areas around the country compete for the same workers.

“At the end of the day, the driver is talent,” said Mary Graham, chief advancement officer for the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce, which co-sponsored the study with the Charleston Regional Development Alliance. “The metros that are doing well and growing in this country are all hunting for that talent, and that’s whether you’re growing it, attracting it or keeping it.”

The Charleston region — which includes Charleston, Dorchester and Berkeley counties — received high marks in most categories of the study, an economic scorecard that compares this region with eight peer cities.

Those other areas, like the Charleston region, are trying to grow their technology and manufacturing sectors as well as their innovative and entrepreneurial business climates and quality of life. They were chosen because of their similarities to the Charleston region, which boasts an aerospace industry in Boeing Co.’s 787 Dreamliner campus and an automotive sector with facilities from Mercedes-Benz vans and Volvo cars under construction.

The annual study “gives us a real chance to take a quality snapshot with regard to our competitiveness factors and then look at communities that have a comparable industrial asset mix and see how we are performing against them,” said Bryan Derreberry, the chamber’s president and CEO.

“We think we’re measuring up in a way that’s very positive for employers, citizens and elected officials,” Derreberry said. “But we’ve got work to do.”

The Charleston region scored best for quality of life, with 127 points in a system where 100 equals the national average. This area was tops among the nine cities studied for health care access and sixth for cultural and recreational opportunities. The region’s falling violent crime rate since 2005 is a plus, but traffic congestion — third-worst among the cities — drags down the overall score.

This region also ranks above average for its entrepreneurial spirit, with the percentage of income generated by self-employed business owners second only to Nashville and several state-of-the-art tech incubators looking to create the next Facebook or Twitter.

But while the infrastructure is in place to foster tech growth, the money, ideas and people haven’t followed as quickly.

The Charleston region falls to near the bottom of the chart for innovation, largely because of a dearth of graduate students in science-related fields, a lack of venture capital funding and a rate of inventions — as measured by patents issued — that’s growing but not as fast as in other places.

A lack of higher-education programs focusing on science, technology, engineering and math — collaboratively called STEM education — is holding back innovation in the Charleston region, according to the report. The number of those so-called knowledge workers has grown 36 percent in the region since 2006, but most of that growth isn’t homegrown.

“The growth is primarily due to in-migration,” said Stephen Warner, vice president of regional competitiveness for the alliance. “There are a lot of great things going on in terms of academies and apprenticeships to build out a pipeline to address employer needs. But, right now, it’s not to the scale or capacity anyone would want.”

Peggy Frazier, vice president of global talent acquisition for Charleston software firm Blackbaud Inc., says more college-based STEM offerings are important, but the programs really need to begin in kindergarten if this area is going to thrive.

“Without accelerating our ability to provide strong talent within the region, companies will continue to look at other states to fill our critical tech-hiring needs,” Frazier said in a statement that was part of the study. “We need to invest in advanced technology degrees for our students in order to stay relevant as a region, attract more high-growth technology companies and remain competitive.”

It’s a notion that’s not lost on Derreberry, who said the chamber is working with education leaders to close the gap.

“Part of the challenge is there are 382 other metro areas that are after the same asset,” he said. “Everybody is battling for this talent and, in particular, the eight (cities) we’re comparing ourselves to.”

The annual scorecard, which began in 2010, is intended to be an unbiased look at the Charleston region’s economic progress, according to the chamber. It compares the most recent data available to a 2005 baseline to illustrate economic trends over time.

The chamber said in a statement that the study is meant “to guide and inform discussions by local leaders regarding strategies for building a globally competitive economy now and into the future.”

Reach David Wren at (843) 937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_