Ford Rouge Factory

Robots weld the cab of a 2018 Ford F-150 truck on the assembly line at the Ford Rouge assembly plant on Sept. 27 in Dearborn, Mich. A new University of South Carolina initiative hopes to train students for jobs in advanced industries like artificial intelligence and robotics. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

South Carolina’s economic expansion is heading into its 10th consecutive year. Its market fundamentals are strong and its growth is robust.

Despite South Carolina’s thriving econ-

omy and the lowest jobless rate in almost 20 years, the state is facing critical issues related to workforce. The population is aging, skilled workers are few, and the labor force is actually shrinking.

As our state continues to attract manufacturing and technology companies, our investment in our current and future workforce needs to be equally robust. With a ready and able workforce, South Carolina can maintain — and expand — economic investments from companies, large and small. Investments that will continue to make South Carolina a place to live, work and thrive.

Job creation is steadily increasing, upward of 2 percent this year alone. To meet this challenge, government, industry and academic partners must agree that workforce development and retention is an inherent part of economic development.

The University of South Carolina views these two concepts as inseparable — attracting and training future workforce and researchers while cultivating relationships with corporate partners and businesses to nurture and retain promising talent. It’s a classic win-win.

Celebrating its fifth anniversary, the Office of Economic Engagement at the University of South Carolina has cultivated partnerships with leading companies such as Boeing, IBM, Nephron, Samsung, Siemens and Yaskawa. These partnerships have generated more than $700 million in investment in the university itself and contributed to more than $5.5 billion in economic activity in the state in 2017.

Not only do these partnerships provide cutting-edge equipment and platforms for students to train on, but the university has created and modernized courses and curricula uniquely tailored to meet the evolving needs of industry. This convergence of industry innovation and access to top talent means well-paying jobs for students and a trained and available workforce for companies in South Carolina.

Recently, USC and the Office of Economic Engagement officially opened its 15,000 square-foot Digital Transformation Lab, a research showplace featuring research and consumer products from in-demand industries, including robotics, artificial intelligence and machine learning, and cloud-based platforms.

More importantly, the lab provides both the space and industry connections for all students to receive real-world training in growing fields while furthering our dedication to continuing to meet and exceed the workforce demands of industry.

Through corporate partnerships and initiatives like the Digital Transformation Lab, we can continue to bring added value to the economy and workforce development while ensuring students have exposure to state-of-the-art technology, ultimately leading to full-time employment after graduation.

As economic investment in the Palmetto State continues to expand, we are equally committed to meeting the workforce needs of the future. Skilled labor should not be a bottleneck for economic growth; in fact, quite the opposite. Our ability to cultivate, attract and retain talent can be an economic driver. It is as attractive a calling card to business as tax incentives and robust infrastructure.

By developing and building on partnership successes through initiatives like the Center for Applied Innovation and the Digital Transformation Lab, South Carolina will maintain its economic strength and solidify our reputation as the home of Brainpower, USA.

Bill Kirkland is executive director of the University of South Carolina’s Office of Economic Engagement. He is a former corporate executive who also led the USC/Columbia Technology Incubator.