How to fund road to S.C. prosperity

An engine and part of a wing from the 100th 787 Dreamliner to be built at Boeing of South Carolina's North Charleston, S.C., facility are seen outside the plant Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2016. (Brad Nettles/The Post and Courier via AP)

Two recent business news stories have an unmistakable linkage. One described South Carolina’s broadening manufacturing base and its fundamental dependence on educating a human workforce. The other described the pressures on manufacturing worldwide, especially the global windstorm of China’s faltering economy.

South Carolina’s economic foundation has transformed over the last half century, from reliance on agriculture and textiles to manufacturing dominated by foreign investments. The manufacturers are big and impressive names, including Daimler Mercedes, BMW, Volvo, Boeing and Michelin. The state markets itself to these global companies, and its success is apparent in the directory of multi-national companies investing in new and expanding facilities.

For South Carolina, the global economy is reality.

South Carolina’s place in this universe of competitiveness keys its economic development policies and strategies. In fact, the state has assumed an inescapable mandate of constant global competitiveness, and it cannot afford to fail. A template of strategic competitiveness begins with the highlighted theme of the National Association of Manufacturers forum at Trident Technical College earlier this month: the only sustainable competitive advantage is human capital, well-trained workers, for sure, but also leaders with integrity, ingenuity and a commitment to a mission. South Carolina’s economic future depends on men and women, inspired and well-trained.

Yes, technology is important, but too often we focus on its awesome power and possibilities and forget that technology is simply a tool. In the hands of unskilled users, technology is no different than a hammer or a chainsaw. Business literature provides many examples of corporations losing large sums on misguided technology projects — or failing in the timely training of workforces.

The National Association of Manufacturing forum also highlighted the importance of public-private partnerships. Many great national accomplishments are products of government and private enterprise cooperating and sharing visions and values. One example is how the nation’s commitment to national security under President Dwight Eisenhower led to the creation of what we know as the Interstate Highway System. It was originally called the National Defense Highway System, and it has become a critical link in our nation’s economic development and improving qualities of life.

Similarly, national security concerns after the Soviet Union orbited Sputnik I in 1957 provided the initial spark for our space program. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy, with strong national support, committed to landing a man on the moon that decade. And, on July 20, 1969, millions watched worldwide as Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong stepped triumphantly upon the lunar surface. It was “one small step” for Neil Armstrong, but the U.S. space program, a public — private initiative designed and executed by humans, has produced a constant flow of national defense and quality of life benefits.

Another great example is the Internet — a facility that seemingly has been with us forever but actually has been “public” for only 25 years.

A powerful local example of public/private cooperation was the recent “fast track” approval and funding of Charleston’s harbor deepening project. Participants included the Army Corps of Engineers, elected officials, individuals with common private sector interests, and the Ports Authority. This cooperative effort will spin off significant additional economic benefits for our region, state and nation, and it will become an important asset in South Carolina’s global competitiveness.

So, for a state competing in the fierce global manufacturing markets, emphasis on human capital and the key public-private relationships must dominate strategic planning and the policies of competitiveness. In our dual roles as citizens and organizational human capital, we must embrace shared responsibilities and trade-offs to accomplish our mission.

This emphasis applies directly to the critical challenge of fixing our state’s deteriorating roads. After much discussion over several years, a gasoline use tax solution is now supported by a diverse and growing number of citizens and leaders including Glenn McConnell (retired legislative leader and College of Charleston president), The Post and Courier, Chamber of Commerce, Truckers Association, business CEOs and others.

There should be no mistake among policy makers that S.C. economic development strategies now require a modernization of the road and bridges infrastructure. Quality of life for the humans upon whom the state’s economic future depends also depend on better and safer roads. In fact, too many citizens now pay a huge price in lost work and family time, auto repairs, rising insurance rates, gas burned in traffic jams, and even the loss or injury of loved ones. These are hidden “taxes” imposed by deficient public infrastructure.

The roads crisis readily relates to the realities of human capital and the competitive mandates of public-private partnerships. The state’s global manufacturers understand this crisis and their message has been clear. The Legislature must act decisively — now!

L. McTier Anderson, Ph.D, is a recently retired professor of business administration/marketing at Charleston Southern University and former dean of the School of Business.