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Community Conversations – Visiting South Carolina

Richmond Fed President Tom Barkin recently visited parts of northeastern South Carolina to connect with workforce leaders and community members about how the region has been faring.

During his socially distant and virtual meetings in Myrtle Beach and in several cities within Dillon and Florence Counties, including Florence and Timmonsville, Barkin learned about issues unique to each locality and discovered that while some industries are thriving despite the pandemic, this has produced another set of challenges.

“Almost a year into the pandemic, there are distributional effects,” said Matthew Martin, the Richmond Fed’s regional executive for North Carolina and South Carolina, who helped plan the visit along with colleagues in the Bank’s Research and Community Development divisions. He and others on the planning team participated in most of the virtual meetings along with Barkin.

The two-day visit in February was part of a year-round effort called Community Conversations, through which the Bank’s regional executives, Community Development regional managers and President Barkin spend time in a particular region meeting with small groups of stakeholders to learn more about the well-being of those towns and cities and ways in which the Richmond Fed can help.

Barkin’s visit included several one-on-one meetings with leaders in the community, along with tours of Harbor Freight Tools USA Inc. and Inland Port Dillon. He also participated in several virtual meetings, including a workforce development roundtable hosted by the Florence-based Southeastern Institute of Manufacturing and Technology and the Florence-Darlington Technical College; a Zoom meeting with the North Eastern Strategic Alliance Board of Directors; and a roundtable with the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce.

While learning about the growing business of a Honda plant that produces ATVs and other off-road vehicles, the Bank team discovered that a lack of trained workers has prevented the plant from keeping up with demand. Several other thriving manufacturing businesses are facing a similar issue and seeking ways to reposition a labor force that isn’t skilled for the available jobs. In addition, there is not a steady stream of workforce and economic development funding for certain training programs.

“If you have workers in an industry that need to transition to a different industry, what supports do they have to do that retraining?” Martin asked. “With demand up 30 percent, the Honda plant is running out of inventory. Another example is CDL training for truck drivers. They only have one person who is certified to do the testing, so there is a constraint in getting the drivers through this program.”

Industries in the region that have been hit hard by the pandemic are also straining to stay staffed. Myrtle Beach hotels and restaurants have seen a 40 percent decline in business, yet employers say it has been challenging to lure employees who are receiving unemployment benefits back, when issues such as a lack of childcare and fear of getting COVID-19 remain.

These and other meaningful insights that Barkin and the Community Conversations team gathered during the visit will be shared more broadly in essays, publications and conversations regarding the Fifth District economy. The team will also share innovative solutions being employed in the region with other businesses and organizations across the Fifth District.

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