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Speaking of the Economy
Tom Barking (center) speaking at Community Conversations event in South Carolina in November 2023
Speaking of the Economy
Jan. 24, 2024

Workforce Development in South Carolina

Audiences: Workforce Sector Leaders, Community Advocates, Business Leaders, General Public

Workforce development was a major topic of conversation when Matt Martin and Erika Bell recently met with business and community leaders in Pickens County and Oconee County, South Carolina. In this episode, Martin and Bell discussed what they learned during their visit. Two local workforce development leaders — Jeromy Arnett and Ray Farley of Alliance Pickens — also shared their stories.


Tim Sablik: The Richmond Fed serves the Fifth Federal Reserve District, which includes most of West Virginia; Washington, D.C.; Maryland; Virginia; North Carolina; and South Carolina. To stay current on economic conditions in this region, Bank President Tom Barkin and the outreach team regularly meet with business and community leaders across the District. These Community Conversations help us learn about economic challenges and opportunities that aren't always visible in national data.

Matt Martin: Several times a year, we go to some part of our District to try and learn a little bit more deeply about what the economic drivers are in that region and the issues that they're dealing with in their communities. In trying to identify these, we have in mind our work in smaller towns and rural areas. So, we're trying to find places that maybe have something interesting going on that are not part of larger metropolitan areas.

Sablik: That's Matt Martin, a regional executive who leads outreach efforts across North and South Carolina. I recently sat down with him and Erika Bell, the Richmond Fed's community development regional manager for North and South Carolina, to talk about a Community Conversations event they held last November. Their team visited two neighboring counties in South Carolina — Pickens County and Oconee County.

Martin: We took a look at these counties and knew ahead of time that they had some interesting things going on in the realm of workforce development. We wanted to learn more about those efforts.

Manufacturing makes up a substantial portion of their job base. Both of these counties have recognized that they have a need to equip workers for the jobs that are available and likely to show up if they're successful in recruiting more firms.

Erika Bell: When you look at their local school districts, when you look at the county councils and how they work together, there was a real opportunity to look at workforce development specifically in that area due to the school districts doing a tremendous job. So, that's one big reason we visited.

Industry support for education and training programs is very important. Pickens County Career and Technology Center has leaders from the surrounding industries advising, funding, and offering employment opportunities to students. I see this integrated relationship as a key component of the success of the Career and Technology Center. While we have seen this in other places, this was something really strong that we saw, and supports our thinking around industry support of education and training programs.

Sablik: During their visit, Matt and Erika met with Jeromy Arnett, the Existing Industry and Workforce Development Manager for Alliance Pickens, an economic development organization. Jeromy spent 20 years in the manufacturing industry. Today, he uses that experience to connect business leaders with educators training the next generation of workers at the Pickens County Career and Technology Center.

Jeromy Arnett: I have the ability to go in and sit down with our business leaders in the county. From time to time, they'll mention roadblocks or things that they'd like to see happen at the educational level. I'm able to go from that conversation and call up and schedule a meeting with our superintendent and go and give him that information directly.

One example: we had a local company move in. One of the biggest things that they do is five-axis CNC machining and nobody around in our area is teaching it, definitely not at the high school level, not at the technical college level nor a four-year university. We were able to take that need and go straight to the superintendent. Dr. Merck was able to take a masonry lab and turn it into an advanced manufacturing lab. A half a million dollars was spent just to get the classroom ready. DMG MORI donated a $600,000 five-axis machining center.

That's just part of the uniqueness that we have in the relationship between economic development, the school district, and our local business.

Sablik: Ray Farley, executive director of Alliance Pickens, echoed the importance of collaboration.

Ray Farley: One of the keys to making this all work is that we have a true partnership and a cooperative atmosphere that involves existing industry, economic development, and education.

The better the education we have in the community, the more attractive our community is for industry. The more industry we have, the greater the need for a skilled workforce. The greater that need is, then the greater the need is for an education system. The better the education system is, the more industry it attracts.

Sablik: To ensure students in Pickens had the opportunity to gain the variety of skills employers are looking for, the Career and Technology Center created the Scholar Technician program.

Farley: The seed for Scholar Technician actually started in the recession of '08-09. During that time period, we observed Pickens County companies that did well, came out of the recession strong, and we observed companies that didn't do so well. The common denominator of the companies that came through strong were that they had previously cross-trained their staff to do a multitude of tasks so that when times got a little bit difficult during the recession, there was a lot of flexibility within those companies to move and shift staff where the work was needed, and where the work was not needed. So, we went to school on that.

We observed how active our existing industry is in our community. We're also aware that Pickens County is a high-achieving school district. In the meantime, Jeromy has given us feedback that our companies, what they need is technicians. They're in need of people who could solve problems with their minds and their hands. So, we rolled out a whole concept.

The basic premise of Scholar Technician — initially it was a means by which we can incite and excite Mom and Dad, the teachers, the guidance counselors, and the principals to stop telling the children the only way to financial success, for a successful career, is through a four-year degree. Scholar Technician has helped us to increase the breadth and depth of young people in Pickens County who are interested in studying STEM. It's a program that's working really, really well.

Arnett: We have four feeder high schools that feed into the Career Center. They'll go take their core classes at their local high school and then they'll spend half of the day at the Career Center.

Ten years ago, 800 students per year would go through technical programs at the Career Center. This year, that number is almost 1,800. Our Career Center reached capacity three years ago. There's roughly 300 students on a waiting list to get into some of these programs.

It's because of the planning and the effort put forth by the administration at the Career Center [and] our administration of our school district. Kids are getting STEM-related activities from K-5 all the way to seventh grade to lead them into, hopefully, choosing one of the programs that's at the Career Center. It is an active recruiting approach and plan to get kids interested and enthused in STEM activities from the age of five all the way until they start making career choices going into the eighth grade.

Sablik: The Career and Technology Center also provides workforce development for adults.

Arnett: The EmpowerUp program is opening the doors of our Career Center for our local adults who may not be part of that skilled labor pool to come in and get training that they can employ in our local market. Sixty-three percent of our student population in Pickens County lives at or below the poverty line. We have a great thing in teaching our students, now we need to go back and see how we can help their parents.

Sablik: These efforts to reach the whole community stood out to Matt and Erika during their visit.

Martin: We've heard this a lot over the years that it can be hard to recruit into advanced manufacturing because the parents might have a view of manufacturing that dates back to when they were younger workers. That's changed, as has the pay structure for some of those jobs. Getting information out about what these jobs look like, what career paths in these industries look like, can be really difficult. There were some interesting pieces of this visit where we saw them really making some concerted effort around I guess you could call it the marketing piece.

Bell: One thing that stuck out to me is non-school barriers that face potential employees in workforce development. We heard them mention the availability of childcare in this more rural area. We heard from local manufacturers that one has opened childcare on site as a solution. So, I think a question moving forward is what are viable solutions to the non-school barriers that face potential employees.

Martin: We heard from a couple of companies that they had lost employees to an employer in a different county, not one of the two counties we had visited, because they do offer on-site childcare. It's interesting because these are places of work where you have to do your work in person, right? It's manufacturing. So, that component becomes even more important.

Sablik: As they prepare for future Community Conversations, Matt and Erika plan to take what they learned in Pickens and Oconee to those discussions.

Bell: I look forward to listening and learning how the workforce development ecosystems in other places operate, and what are their challenges and solutions and new ideas that could perhaps address some of the things we heard here [and] that should be lifted up, that are working in other places.

Martin: I would add to that. We're going to have the opportunity going forward to visit some places that have one very large economic development project. So, I would be interested to see how some of the efforts we've seen in places like Pickens and Oconee County can be used elsewhere, where there might be thousands of jobs that need to be filled in the space of a fairly short period of time. That probably requires many counties across the labor-shed to get involved and do this similar work, but on a scale that's a little bit different.

Sablik: If you want to keep up with the Richmond Fed's Community Conversations across the Fifth District, visit the Region and Communities section of our website,