South Carolina is on the short list of 11 states for a proposed $1.6B Toyota-Mazda plant. Finding its 4,000 workers could be a challenge, experts say, but SC has a proven track record for meeting the mark. Wochit
The race has begun among states to land a huge prize: a $1.6-billion project to construct the nation’s newest high-tech auto plant that will create 4,000 well-paying jobs.
By not designating a site, Toyota and Mazda have invited states to come up with their best deal. And according to a report earlier this week in The Wall Street Journal, South Carolina is on the short list of 11 states for the automakers’ joint venture.
Finding the workers for such a plant could be a challenge, experts around the Upstate told The Greenville News this week, but they also said the state has a proven track record for meeting the mark.
Brian Symmes, spokesman for Gov. Henry McMaster, said the administration does not comment on live economic development prospects but said the governor is consistently looking for ways to expand job opportunities for citizens. Echoing that sentiment, Adrienne Fairwell, spokeswoman for the South Carolina Department of Commerce, said she could not comment on any prospects but said workforce is a big part of the equation for any company looking at the state. The speed at which manufacturers can get up and running hinges on people filling jobs, she said.
“We are a state that houses BMW, Volvo, Mercedes-Benz and Boeing,” Fairwell said. “We have a workforce that is ready and available, and we can create the workforce where necessary because we have the tools, tactics and strategies to do it.”
Upstate economic development experts this week, meanwhile, touted the region’s highly skilled workers, transportation hubs and cluster of first-, second- and third-tier auto suppliers. The Upstate is the “manufacturing Mecca” of South Carolina, said Mark Farris, president of the Greenville Area Development Corp. (GADC).
“So with all due respect to Charleston and the recent announcement there, if you compare the percentage of manufacturing and the sheer numbers of folks employed in manufacturing, we have three times the number as the Lowcountry,” Farris said. “The odds of finding such a workforce anywhere in South Carolina would be better here than anywhere else.”
Having said that, Farris added, there is a premium on employees with the skill set that advanced manufacturing demands. Finding them is not easy, he said.
“That is not unique in the Southeast nor in the nation,” Farris said.
The Upstate is nearly at full employment, with the unemployment rate near 4 percent. The region has more jobs than people looking for them, according to figures provided by the South Carolina Department of Employment and Workforce. In Spartanburg, Greenville and Anderson counties last month, more than 27,000 jobs were posted on state and national career sites the agency tracks while about 23,000 people were looking for work.
According to the new “Accelerate” initiative from the Greenville chamber, the area has expanded its employment base by 45,000 jobs over the past seven years, but its workforce has expanded by only 29,000 people in the same timeframe.
Ken Crews, training manager at German auto-parts supplier Stueken North America, said he has struggled to find new workers with the right combination of skills and work ethic for his plant. He said his highly skilled 120-person team is aging and his company has launched a long-term plan to find the next generation of workers.
“With what we are doing, we can be really selective,” Crews said, adding that recruiting for a 4,000 person high-tech auto plant seems daunting. “You will find 4,000 people out there, but it’s not going to be 4,000 people you want to hire. If you’re lucky, it’s 250.”
Jermaine Whirl, vice president for economic development and corporate training at Greenville Technical College, said two long-term solutions have emerged for finding workers in a tight market: cast the net wider geographically and get able-bodied workers back in the labor force.
Whirl said his team considers anyone within an hour’s drive of downtown Greenville when calculating the available workforce. About 56,000 people commute to Greenville County from other counties, according to DEW.
“It helps us to sleep good at night to know the workforce pipeline is there,” Whirl said. “We literally have folks drive from almost the North Carolina border daily.”
Whirl said the county also has several sub-pockets of would-be workers who have not been “activated” into the workforce.
“The question is how do we get them employed because they are sitting around,” Whirl said.
Labor force participation rates for the state of South Carolina have been three to four points lower than national rates for more than a decade. They reached a 40-year low this year, at about 59 percent, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. This means that 41 percent of people in the state who could work — they are at least 16 years old and are not in jail, in a mental facility or in a home for the aging — have no job and are not looking for one either.
The Greenville Chamber of Commerce has answered this problem by leading a charge to increase the employment eligibility of non-violent ex-cons through expungement, said Hank Hyatt, the chamber’s vice president for economic competitiveness. The chamber has also advocated for programs to open up better job opportunities for people with learning disabilities, and stay-at-home mothers wishing to re-enter the workforce.
Greenville Technical College, meanwhile, last year opened the $25 million Gene Haas Center for Manufacturing Innovation (CMI), a facility that nearly doubles the capacity of machining and mechatronics students the college can house. Job placement rates for these students ranges in the low to mid 90s, said CMI Director David Clayton. Kids often choose between several recruiters as graduation approaches.
And Greenville County schools — which has more than 4,000 graduates a year — has expanded advanced manufacturing facilities at its four career centers, said Brooks Smith, executive director of career and technology education for the schools. These centers currently house classes and workshop spaces for nearly 2,000 students taking courses ranging from cosmetology to auto-collision repair, he said.
From this group of career-path kids, Whirl said, the business community should be developing more paid internships.
“We are talking about high school kids who will work as apprentices in larger companies,” he said
Crews, the Upstate training manager for Stueken, said that for more than a year now, he has been recruiting workers as paid interns before they are out of high school. When the Golden Strip Career Center needed help with classroom instruction, he even sent one of his senior guys over to help teach a machine tooling class.
“They shouldn’t be worried about whether they have enough instructors when you have all these big companies around here,” Crews said.
This year Crews plans to have six high-schoolers working part-time at his plant in the Southchase business park in Fountain Inn. The two teens he had working at the plant this summer — Cesar Morales and Antonio Danino — received their offers in April, the earlier the better to beat out offers from big names like Michelin or GE, Crews said.
“I brought the idea to my German managers, and they were like, ‘Why aren’t we already doing this?’ ” Crews said.
The program at Stueken is just one example of internship and apprenticeship opportunities that Lynn Tuten, a work-based learning coordinator for Greenville County schools, pursues for students every day at the Golden Strip Career Center outside Mauldin. With a tough-love approach, Tuten tells students work is the ticket to a life transformation no matter the barrier. She knows all her students by name and follows up with them personally whenever they encounter problems at work. She has several students with no means of transportation, for instance.
“I tell them, ‘you’ve got two legs, don’t you?'” she said. “If they have to walk to work the first week, they can save up and pay for a taxi or Uber the second week.”
The GADC’s Farris and Tuten agreed that better public transportation in the county would open up job opportunities.
“We need to get folks to these jobs,” Farris said.
Morales and Danino, both 18 and former students at the Golden Strip career center, stood hunkered over microscopes this week in an assembly hall at Stueken. They were examining parts for tiny imperfections. Both will enter Greenville Tech in the fall, splitting their time between classes and work at Stueken — and getting paid for all of it.
“It’s a great opportunity,” Morales said.
Rebecca Hartley, director of operations for the Clemson University Center for Workforce Development, said part of the challenge of getting people activated into a largely manufacturing workforce is pushing back against the perception that factory jobs are low-paying and dirty — a holdover from the days when textiles dominated the Upstate economy.
“Those negative perceptions are still there,” she said.
Farris, with GADC, said he remembers his own father coming home covered in lint.
“My father said he’d prefer I didn’t do that,” Farris said. “Now manufacturing has changed. The companies that are doing well and competing globally, you wear a polo shirt and khaki pants, and you never get dirty. It’s a comfortable, air-conditioned environment.”
The wages, said the school district’s Tuten, are also well above what kids might expect — nearing six figures for senior positions.
“Kids are told that a four-year degree is their ticket,” she said. “That’s not always the case.”
Despite low unemployment here and across the state, the agency charged with finding and training manufacturing workers on short notice — ReadySC — last year trained nearly 4,000 people for 134 different companies locating or expanding in the state, said Kelly Steinhilper, spokeswoman for ReadySC. She said ReadySC meets with prospective companies very early in the site selection process and creates a customized recruiting strategy.
“We develop a scope of work based on the organization specific needs in terms of skills, knowledge and abilities needed by the local workforce, critical business drivers for the organization, desired workplace culture and specific timing requirements, and we work to fulfill that scope,” she said.
Clayton, the CMI director, said no other state’s recruiting and training mechanisms even come close.
“They copy what we have,” he said.