COLUMBIA — By September, 113 people working for a major fiber manufacturer in Camden will be out of a job.
The layoffs come as Invista, a Koch Industries subsidiary, terminates a single production line in its Kershaw County plant. Other areas of the plant will continue to operate.
Invista is one of several companies to shutter a portion or all operations this year.
Statewide, closures and layoffs announced to date will result in 3,856 total job losses between Jan. 1 and Sept. 5, according to filings with the S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce.
Job losses this year so far are running ahead of the 2,195 for the same time period in 2018 but below the 6,651 made in the first eight months of 2017. Of those in 2017, 4,003 came from a single employer — Fluor Corp. doing work on the failed V.C. Summer nuclear plant in Jenkinsville. Losses for the first eight months of 2016 totaled 2,019.
But low unemployment and overall economic health in the state is easing the pain of these closures. The state unemployment in May was 3.5 percent, up slightly from the 20-year low for the month, 3.4 percent, set last year.
Meanwhile the labor force, those working or looking of work, is at 20-year high with the state reaching a labor force of 2.37 million in May, according to federal data. A skilled workforce has attracted numerous manufacturers to the region — Haier came to Kershaw County in 1999, Hengst in 2005, to name a few — in turn giving workers other employers to turn to when a plant closes.
"The good news is there are a lot of job openings," said Marvin Moss, economic development manager for the city of Clinton, where Shaw Industries flooring company is ending operations.
Laurens County, home to Clinton, had 108 manufacturing job openings and 27 transportation and warehousing job openings in May, according to SC Works. Jonathan Coleman, executive director at Laurens County Development Corp., estimates demand is actually higher.
Coleman said 15 industries have already signed up for a job fair this month at the Shaw facility. Manufacturing employed 8,146 workers in Laurens County at the end of 2018, up from 5,749 workers five years earlier, according to DEW data.
Alternative employment could include an engineered wood manufacturer eight miles away in Joanna, Moss said. The county is helping develop an industrial park, which will house at least two companies, bringing 170 new jobs. Samsung is hiring in Newberry, 22 miles to the southeast, and Fuji is expanding in Greenwood, about 30 miles to the southwest.
"We also feel like the Shaw facility is a great industrial property and hopefully will recruit a new industry to fill their space rather quickly," Coleman said.
Back in Kershaw County, companies posted 32 manufacturing job openings and 14 warehousing and transportation jobs in May.
"The skills and experience of these affected workers make them attractive to our local manufacturers and our office is working to link the workers with area opportunities," said Peggy McLean, Kershaw County Economic Development director.
Invista's plant has operated in Kershaw County since the 1950s and is the county's largest manufacturing employer with more than 800 workers. Spokeswoman Kim Conlee said the shutdown is in response to market demand for one of its fibers. Invista makes the nylon, spandex and polyester that is later woven into carpet, automotive airbags, clothing and other products.
The company continues to make investments at its facility, expanding its other production lines. For those investments, the company has received $500,000 in state Commerce Department grants since 2013. A fee in lieu of tax agreement was signed in 2015 between the company and the county, with Invista committing to invest at least $45 million in exchange for a reduced assessment rate.
Invista is the second employer reporting layoffs in the county this year. Thermoid announced in April plans to close its transmission belt manufacturing plant in Elgin, displacing 59 workers.
“This was a very difficult decision that has come about only after extensive analysis of the business and our alternatives,” President Matt Lockard said in the statement. “Unfortunately, our operation has struggled to remain competitive within this difficult global market.”
In Orangeburg, Mayer Industry’s parent company made plans at the end of 2017 to transfer production to Germany.
Mayer makes braiding machines, used by manufacturers who make everything from brake cables to casings for fiber optic cable. The demand for the machines had largely gone overseas as production of braided products was moved there.
But, by that December, something strange happened.
“The market really started to pick up,” CEO George Fischer said.
Orders came in for 43 machines in 2018 and 55 in 2019, compared with just 25 in 2017. The uptick bought the factory some time.
“It was a once-in-lifetime surge of orders,” Fischer said, and the plant’s life was extended another year and a half.
If not for U.S. trade policy, Fischer said he might have made the case to reconsider shuttering of the production facility. Fischer doesn't know if his bid to save the plant would have worked but reactionary tariffs from China was a factor in reducing those 55 orders for the year back down to 33.
“If we had a chance at escaping, that option is pretty much done and dusted now,” he said.
Mayer’s Orangeburg plant is set to close by the end of the year. Fischer said the 40 workers left at Mayer range in age from 22 to 55.
“I’ve got people here who’ve got to find their next life,” Fischer said.
Again, the one upshot is the state economy is strong, allowing those employees to move on and fill workforce demand from other companies. Orangeburg County had 92 manufacturing job openings and 18 transportation and warehousing job openings in May.
“There's an appetite for workers out there,” Fischer said.
But he warns more openings don’t always translate to comparable openings. His goal as he prepares for closure is to aid his employees in finding strong jobs with similar pay and skill level.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified layoffs at Invista as loss of an employer. The layoffs only affected some of the company's Camden workforce.