Talent search Growing workforce provides opportunities, but attitudes must change, experts say

Big companies like the 7,500-worker Boeing South Carolina (above) have been a boon for the region’s mannufacturing sector. But they also create the perception that the local “talent pipeline is all dried up,” according to an economic development official.

In the quest for qualified, highly skilled workers, success often comes down to perception.

That’s why state and local economic development officials are trying to change the way workers view advanced manufacturing careers and how industries see the Charleston region as a place to do business.

“We come from a background as a manufacturing state where one’s parents and grandparents worked with more difficult manufacturing environments and, naturally, the parents would tell their kids to get an education, don’t work in the mill,” Bobby Hitt, the state’s commerce secretary, said during a business forum in North Charleston last week.

“Now the mill has completely transformed,” Hitt said. “We have to re-educate the public about manufacturing. It is a cool living. You walk in clean and you walk out clean. There are a lot of good jobs there.”

At the same time, the Charleston region’s success — a Boeing Co. campus that makes 787 Dreamliners and manufacturing plants for Volvo cars and Mercedes-Benz Vans on the way — is scaring off potential businesses.

“You would assume that momentum creates more momentum and it’s relatively easy to continue performing and sustaining at a high level,” said David Ginn, president and CEO of the Charleston Regional Development Alliance, which markets the three-county area to employers. “What we’re learning is that we’re being hit somewhat in the middle of the face by site selection consultants representing businesses looking to grow and expand. They’re saying, ‘We’re going to take our clients to other communities because we assume you’re full and your talent pipeline is all dried up. You must be out of talent.”

It’s an attitude Marc Murphy, CEO of Charleston software firm SPARC, experienced first-hand.

Murphy recently was in California pitching a project to a large venture capital firm that loved the product and its technology, but did not see the Lowcountry as a viable place to do business.

“They were concerned that we could not scale a company in Charleston,” Murphy said. “We have a challenge of educating and creating a brand externally across the country. People need to understand that this is a very robust and growing technology hub. There is tremendous opportunity for career mobility in Charleston. We need to explain that to people. We need to get that message nationwide.”

The labor pool certainly is here — and it’s growing at a rate five times faster than the U.S. as a whole.

There are about 20,000 unemployed, work-age residents of the three-county Charleston region at any given time, according to statistics from the local development alliance. Of that total, 91 percent have at least a high school diploma and nearly half have attended college or earned a degree. More than three-fourths are in the prime, 25-to-55 age group.

There are 40,000 college students in the area and about 900 soon-to-be military retirees leaving Joint Base Charleston each year. And an average of 30 people are moving to the region every day — 63 percent of them having at least some form of higher education. That’s more new residents per day than any other S.C. metro area, including Greenville (25 per day) and Columbia (14 per day).

About half of the Charleston region’s new residents are moving from elsewhere in South Carolina, although a growing number — 22 percent — are coming from other parts of the Southeast and 10 percent are moving here from other countries.

Hitt said a qualified workforce is the primary factor in companies’ decision-making process when considering a South Carolina location.

“The logistics, location — there are a variety of things that can get worked out,” he said. “But are the people there that will make us successful, innovate us and take us to the next level?”

The first step toward creating that workforce is convincing children that advanced manufacturing jobs using computers, robotics and other cutting-edge technology are not like the smokestack manufacturing jobs of old.

“We need to change the perception of a manufacturing career at the primary and secondary school level,” said Jay Timmons, president and CEO of the National Association of Manufacturers. Otherwise, Timmons said, other countries are willing to take America’s place as a manufacturing leader.

Without new talent, “we’re going to peak and decline,” Timmons said.

The next step is training, and job candidates don’t necessarily need a high-tech background or advanced degree to be successful. Terrance Rivers, area director for the ReadySC job-training program, remembers a former cake decorator who had the basic skills needed to learn how to work on fuselages at Boeing’s Dreamliner campus in North Charleston.

“The feeling that we’ve exhausted our resources only happens if you focus on just one skill set and that’s people who have the talent that has already been developed by someone else,” Rivers said. “But if you’re looking to develop core skill sets, like dexterity, following instructions, attention to detail and the aptitude to be cross-trained, that’s where we can be successful.”

ReadySC, a part of the state’s technical college system, provides job-specific training for companies looking to locate in South Carolina. The program has trained thousands of workers for high-tech jobs with companies like Boeing and will be training workers for the Volvo and Mercedes-Benz Vans plants scheduled to open by 2018.

“ReadySC is the strongest tool in our state incentives toolbox,” said Jacki Renegar, research analyst with the Center for Business Research, a partnership of the development alliance and the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce. State officials often provide free training through ReadySC to lure businesses to the area.

Rivers said he often finds his best candidates from this area’s food industry, entry-level production jobs such as warehousing or driving a forklift and retired military veterans.

“Our primary role is to identify talent and then help that talent transition to advanced manufacturing jobs,” he said.

Changing the perspective of businesses thinking of locating to the region will be a slow process of promoting the growing workforce and training programs that are available.

For Anita Zucker, CEO of North Charleston’s The InterTech Group and board chair of the Charleston Regional Development Alliance, that means every business leader in the region “needs to speak out. ... Your voices are necessary,” not only in telling the region’s manufacturing story but convincing legislators to provide the funding needed to cultivate talent.

“The good news is that we do have major growth coming and we can take more growth because we are working hard to produce the talent,” Zucker said. “And that’s truly exciting.”

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